Remember the cabaret law? The bane of our existence, the thing that made going out oppressive and demeaning—not freewheeling and fun? I do. I remember it, because even though the city’s reportedly backed off enforcing the no-dancing statute, it’s still there. The “No Dancing Allowed” signs prevail, and bouncers are still telling patrons not to sway to the music. Just last week a friend was at a brand-new spot—R & R, formerly the site of the long-demonized cabaret-less club the Cooler—when security told him to cut out that dancing nonsense.
There’s finally a lawsuit, but it’s barely gotten any press. NYU law professor Paul Chevigny and civil liberties advocate Norman Siegel are challenging the city on behalf of plaintiffs consisting of professional and social dancers, a dance organization, and promoters, on the grounds that the law prohibits expression and social dancing—which greatly influences dance forms like ballet, jazz, and modern dance. Chevigny says that bars “still get summonses, and dancers don’t experience [enforcement] as bad as it was a few years ago. It’s like getting struck by lightning.”
Chevigny, who successfully argued against the equally ludicrous “three-musician rule” in the ’80s in a case on behalf of the musicians’ union, says that he’s having a hard time rallying troops—club owners are afraid to testify, and patrons and proprietors alike simply don’t care, because the city’s not messing with them too much. For now, anyway.
Such self-centered self-preservation is shortsighted. The cabaret law, as long as it’s on the books, will be dusted off whenever the city needs a magic weapon to wield against the unseemly world of nightlife. The law, which was enacted during Prohibition, wasn’t enforced for a while but was resurrected during the ’50s and ’60s. “Shady” characters—i.e., some of the greatest artists of the 20th century—had to qualify for a cabaret identification card. Without one, they couldn’t play a cabaret. Their names? Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone.
The cards were abolished, and people forgot about the law again. “In the ’70s there was no enforcement,” says Chevigny. “We had a lot of jazz in the city. But when Koch came into office and the land rents rose, the city had money, they started cracking down, and places suddenly had summonses.” So don’t be fooled: The cabaret law is merely a sleeping dragon. “There’ll be another crackdown,” promises Chevigny.
I informally surveyed club owners, promoters, and DJs about their awareness of and involvement in the case. One bar owner who runs several of the sleaziest spots in the city is fighting behind the scenes. The culture of fear remains. Possibly no one can better argue why the cabaret law should be abolished than Joe’s Pub owner Serge Becker, who is giving Chevigny sworn statements.
Becker: “The cultural impact of social dancing on performance dance is that it serves as a living laboratory for new ideas and forms. We can’t let it stand and leave it to the benevolence of the powers that be. History has clearly shown us that a closet fascist like Giuliani is just around the corner. The problems that nightlife brings to the city (drugs, noise, etc.) will have to be addressed in a straightforward manner, not through the convenient back door of trampling on a fundamental human right. It’s an embarrassment to explain to an international artist like Youssou N’Dour that his fans are not allowed to dance at his concerts. The fact that the existing 221 licenses are coveted like a share in a unsavory cartel by their cowardly unprincipled owners adds insult to injury. When it comes to human rights, the right to serve overpriced bottles to dimwits has to take the backseat. Sorry! It’s time everybody speaks out and puts the final nail into the coffin of this oppressive law not even the police like to enforce.”