Weekend Mambo March Aims to Bump and Grind Cabaret Law Into the Ground


A DJ spins mellow breakbeats inside the meatpacking district bar Baktun as a film of a house party in stop-action is projected onto a hanging screen. A woman sits at a table, watching the film, entranced by the beauty of human movement. But those characters on the screen are the only ones who are allowed to dance here.

On the opposite side of the city, a red light illuminates dancers in the basement of a Lower East Side nightclub. (The nightclub asked to remain unnamed, for fear of a police raid that could shut it down.) The drums rattle out a rhythm as one of the band members leans into the mike. “It’s illegal to dance. Did you hear about that? It’s some crazy law. So if a cop comes down here, you have to stop,” he says, the audience nodding in defiant outrage. “You know, we’re outlaws.”

Several blocks away, on Avenue B, a No Dancing sign dangles over the bar at the Lakeside Lounge. “Is that a joke?” asks Brian Rubenstein, who just flew in from Chicago. His voice mingles with the blues track that wails through the bar’s speakers and resonates off its brick walls. “How can you play music and expect people not to dance? I can’t believe, of all the cities, New York would have a law like this.”

“Dancing is one of the oldest forms of human expression,” says Rubenstein’s friend Michael Gordon. “It’s a basic human right.” * But not in Rudy Giuliani’s city. In recent years, the mayor has waged a war on dancing, and we’re not just talking about the topless kind.

He’s armed himself with the cabaret law, which bans dancing in nightclubs that lack a cabaret license. The law was originally designed to crack down on Prohibition-era speakeasies and Harlem jazz clubs, but had lain dormant for over 70 years. That was until Giuliani’s administration dusted it off about four years ago and began enforcing it against legal nightclubs.

In protest against Rudy’s crackdown on illegal dancing, the Dance Liberation Front will stage its fourth major rally on August 27, called “The Million Mambo March.” Founded by comedians Robert Pritchard and Jen Miller, also known as Deputy Disco Fever and Osama bin Travolta, the group hopes to spread awareness of the cabaret law and garner support for its eradication.

Miller says she expects 400 to 600 people to boogie down in support of the DLF cause. These happy-footed fanatics will march from Tompkins Square Park to Washington Square Park to spread their message that tripping the light fantastic is not a crime. “One thing about us is that we’re not the best dancers in the world,” says Miller, who wore camouflage and a tutu to the group’s last event. “But the law is so stupid that we want to fight it with complete absurdity and humor.”

Along the way, they plan to stop intermittently to dance and hear brief speeches from DLF organizers. “People ask me, ‘Why do you choose to protest a dance law when there are so many other atrocities in the world,’ ” says Miller. But this is about more than just dancing to her. “It’s a free speech issue. Once you attack dance, what’s next?”

Other DLF events have included a twist-a-thon in Times Square, the hokey-pokey around City Hall, a conga line up Avenue A, and a rally in front of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Footloose was playing.

Miller’s cohort, Pritchard, insists that social dancing is an expressive right. “If you give the government the right to tell you that you can’t fidget, they’re getting into your womb, your head, your body,” he says. “At what point is it dancing, though? What if five people start doing a minimal rhythmic movement? What if you bounce on your toes and then move one arm?”

Pritchard objects most to Rudy’s overzealous enforcement of the cabaret law and his one-size-fits-all approach. “Giuliani’s treating restaurants with jukeboxes as if they were warehouse-size discos,” he says. “The mayor dusts off arcane restrictions on our personal integrity and uses them to bludgeon honest businessmen and people who are out to have a good time.”

“Inspectors have described dancing as anything from ‘moving rhythmically’
to ‘gyrating up and down.’ They’ve even taken out dictionaries, offering
a multitude of definitions, including ‘twitching.’ “

Though no dancing signs have sprung up throughout the city, few people know about this law or its scope. “If I see someone dancing, I’ll give them 30 seconds before I tell them to stop, because I know it’s illegal,” says Lakeside Lounge bouncer Mark Kalbin.

Lakeside is by no means a dance club. In fact, there’s very little room even to move around. But four years ago, the club was ticketed because a fire inspector identified two people as dancing to a live band. The bar’s co-owner, Jim Marshall, was told he would be padlocked for the weekend if anyone was caught dancing again. “I actually knew the law,” Marshall says. “I just didn’t think it would be enforced at that level—a couple of girls shaking it while the band was playing.”

Indeed, many bars—Baby Jupiter, Coney Island High, Hogs and Heifers, Vain, and countless others—have been shut down the second time police have witnessed unlicensed dancing on their premises. “They tend to shut you down on a Friday night, so that you have to stay closed for the weekend,” says attorney Robert Bookman, who represents the New York Nightlife Association, a coalition of nightclubs formed four years ago.

So to keep bars from breaking the law every time someone moves to the music, Bookman and the NYNA plan to discuss amending the cabaret law with City Council members. They hope to include a provision for “incidental dancing” that would specify a minimum number of people who have to be jiggling before a club is violating the law.

Marshall has been strictly enforcing the no dancing law ever since he was ticketed for turning a blind eye to Lakeside customers’ illegal undulations. “We just try to explain to people that it’s not our doing, but the law is that they can’t dance,” he says. “We live in an atmosphere where almost nothing is tolerated. It could be one person standing in front of the jukebox shaking their ass, and that would be illegal.”

“There’s no exception in the law,” says Bookman. During cross-examination, inspectors have described dancing to him as anything from “moving rhythmically,” to “gyrating up and down.” Bookman says they have even taken out dictionaries, which offer a multitude of definitions for dancing, including “twitching.”

Even more frustrating is that Lakeside is located in a residential zone, and cabaret licenses are given out only to clubs located in manufacturing or dense commercial zones. But aside from Giuliani’s unprecedented enforcement of the antiquated cabaret law, his administration is also making it almost impossible for many nightclubs that are properly zoned to get a license.

“It’s the administrative baton with which we are all being beaten,” says Baktun manager Philip Rodriguez. He has been trying to get his cabaret license for almost one year, but his efforts have been stalled in the Department of Buildings, and he says his bureaucratic somersaults aren’t getting him anywhere.

Baktun opened two years ago as a cyberplatform: a physical space from which to run live webcasts and to promote cutting-edge electronic music and digital film on the Internet. Several months later, the club received two summonses for operating an “unlicensed cabaret.” Rodriguez says he installed the necessary additional safety requirements soon after receiving his first summons, and that he has been doing all he can both to get the stamp of approval he needs from the buildings department and to stop people from dancing in his club.

He has blocked any open spaces with furniture and has hired another security guard to stand in the middle of the dance floor, instructing people to stop shimmying. “It’s like a militarized zone in there,” says Rodriguez. “We have to tell people to stand still. It’s absurd.”

He points out that cabaret licenses are required for both strip clubs and dance clubs—”the two taboo businesses in New York City,” he says. “It’s kind of ironic that we’re lumped together.” With the mayor’s crackdown on pornography, Rodriguez suggests, all applications for cabaret status are being forced to seep slowly through the city’s bureaucratic molasses.

Even after Rodriguez gets the building department’s approval, he’ll have to go through several more layers of city government before he can get his cabaret license, including getting approval from his local community board and the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Meanwhile, Baktun has received four more summonses from the consumer affairs and police departments. The bar has lost over 60 percent of its business and can survive financially for only another two months. Rodriguez says he has been unable to support as many artists and musicians as he did before the crackdown. “My hands are full dealing with bureaucracy and nickel-and-diming my books,” he says. “I don’t produce anything creative anymore.”

Rodriguez sits solemnly on his bar stool. “This would have been illegal 70 years ago too,” he says, looking toward the horn player, who is blaring a solo over a groove laid down by the drummer in the other room. The cabaret law originally restricted not only dancing, but also music: Specifically, it required a cabaret license for bars where more than three musicians were playing, or where the instruments played included percussion or a horn.

New York University law professor Paul Chevigny speculates that the law was written to zone jazz out of existence. Twelve years ago, he successfully challenged the constitutionality of the portions of the law that applied to music. Yet musicians say their livelihood can still be quashed as a result of Giuliani’s hegemonic rule.

For George Tabb, whose punk band Furious George has been playing gigs in the city for 20 years, increased enforcement of the cabaret law is still affecting musicians. “It’s like a domino effect,” he says. He remembers when the cabaret law was used to shut down illegal parties where he was playing, but he never expected it to be used against legitimate clubs.

Tabb says the law is limiting the venues where he can play because nightclubs are decreasing the number of nights they devote to live music out of fear that someone might dance. “People like to dance when listening to music. That’s not happening, because people can’t move.”

In the 1920s, lawmakers reasoned that the cabaret law would protect patrons from the immoral influences of nightlife. Today, Giuliani defends the law with a similar ethos: “The rule makes sense, and it is helpful in terms of improving the quality of life of all of the neighborhoods of New York City,” he told the Daily News in 1997. Repeated phone calls to the mayor’s office for comment on the law and its enforcement were not returned.

“The cabaret laws were written right after prohibition to regulate an industry that had been dominated by criminal figures,” says Robert Bookman. “Seventy years later, we still have the same law regulating dancing, even though much of it has been found to be unconstitutional.” Now Giuliani has stepped up enforcement of a law that Bookman says resembles a piece of Swiss cheese. “It’s very old and filled with holes.”

From Giuliani’s perspective, the law’s purpose is twofold: to protect a nightclub’s patrons and neighbors from unsafe conditions and obtrusive noise. Last September, former consumer affairs commissioner Jules Polonetsky defended the cabaret law by recalling the 1990 fire that killed 87 people in the Bronx venue Happyland. But Happyland, argues Bookman, was an illegal social club that had never even been inspected by the fire department. “Now the cabaret law is used as an additional weapon against legal nightclubs,” he says. “When a club is otherwise licensed, they’ll try to catch a couple people moving.”

New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Normal Siegel predicts that historians 20 years from now will see this period in New York City’s history as a time when freedom was trampled upon. He says that aside from Giuliani’s myopic view of freedom, the crackdown on nightclubs “is also part of the antifun policies of the Giuliani administration.

“You had a group of people who had a different vision of what freedom is about, and they used the police to carry out their vision,” says Siegel. He plans on challenging the constitutionality of the remaining parts of the cabaret law. But he also acknowledges that it won’t be easy. This is because in 1989, one year after Chevigny’s case was resolved, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that social dancing is not protected by the First Amendment.

“People say to me, this is not that significant because it’s only restricting dancing,” says Siegel. “But that’s how you lose your freedom; it comes incrementally.”