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"The First Amendment is not an intellectual exercise," says Siegal. "It's a safety valve for democracy." Demby agrees: "I think that they [NYNA] are trying to marginalize our point of view, which is what they have been trying to do all along."
Siegal has filed an appeal on behalf of one club that got a violation. "I articulated for the first time the argument that the dance prohibition violates the New York State Constitution as a violation of free expression," says Siegal. "If that appeal doesn't succeed and if the club wants to go into state court, I'm prepared to do that."
While dancing is not protected under the First Amendment at the federal level, New York State law is written more broadlywhich bodes well for a case challenging the cabaret law. Siegal believes that he can win. "I've got a pretty good record on the court stuff," he says humbly.
Philip Rodriguez, the owner of Baktun, is not a member of NYNA or Legalize Dancing NYC ("I wouldn't be a member of any club that would have me," he cracks), but he's one of the most outspoken opponents of the law. A former manager at the Cooler, he opened its sister club Baktun, which focuses on DJs and digital arts, in 1998.
When the dance police first visited him in 1999, a raging house party was going off. It was not a case of incidental dancing. Baktun is a small club with a 180-person capacity that falls somewhere between gargantuan monsters like Twilo and itty-bitty lounges like Plant. It is meant for dancing, it is set up for dancing, and it cannot survive without dancing.
He was lucky. It is also zoned for dancing. Soon after his first ticket, Rodriguez applied for a cabaret license, which sat in limbo somewhere in the Department of Buildings for 16 months. He had already spent $70,000 upgrading the fire alarm and installing a sprinkler system. "But that $70,000 is a spit in the ocean compared to what we lost," he says over tea at an East Village café. "We lost 50 to 60 percent of our gross income for 18 months straight as a net result."
Baktun is directly across the street from Lotus, but the divide couldn't be greater. There are no red velvet ropes in front of Baktun, no celebrities clamoring to get in, only clubbers seeking a dose of good music made more palatable by the club's low cover charge and relatively cheap drinks. "We get along together," he says of Rabin. "But it's a different industry."
"The part of the nightlife industry that's actually interested in music and the arts has been annihilated," says Rodriguez, who is originally from England. "Consider all the different art scenes in the 20th century, whether it be Berlin in the 1930s, or the 1950s in the Left Bank in Paris, or New York in the late '50s, early '60s. You need physical platforms. You need cafés, restaurants," and he says, "clubs."
Looking at all the conversations and e-mail exchanges with David Rabin and Robert Bookman, there are many mentions of "investment," "business," "zoning," and "safety." There are a few mentions of dancing or the First Amendment and freedom of expression. But not once do they mention music.
"A Crash History Course in Cabarets" by Tricia Romano
Research assistance: Dan King