For “the greatest city in the world,” New York has appallingly few places to dance. The next time you find yourself confined to toe-tapping to a tinny Top 40 song in a sports bar, or clutching an $11 Heineken in a booming EDM hall, you can thank the city’s cabaret law, a 90-year-old edict that despite being racist in origin and outmoded in practice, remains a very convenient cudgel for the city to wield against local businesses. Many valiant attempts to repeal it have been made over the years. None have succeeded.
But a group called the Dance Liberation Network is stepping up to the challenge, hopeful that their shot will finally deliver the coup de grâce needed to banish it. A meeting to discuss the ordinance and its demise will be held tonight at the Market Hotel, and an online petition calling for its death has around 2,400 signatures.
John Barclay, one of the group’s organizers, told the Voice that his bar, Bushwick’s Bossa Nova Civic Club, was cited a couple years ago after inspectors saw two people dancing, though the lights had already come up for last call. The fine itself wasn’t especially expensive, but he knows that it would only take two more strikes for his bar to be finished.
“It’s just so, so stupid,” Barclay said. “I think all of us were like, we just can’t stand to know that this law is on the books anymore.”
In its current form, the cabaret law prohibits dancing by three or more people in any “room, place or space in the city… to which the public may gain admission,” and includes “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form[s] of amusement.”
But the origins of the rule date back to 1926, to the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. In its recommendation for approving the law, the Board of Alderman’s Committee on Local Laws said at the time:
“Well, there has been altogether too much ‘running wild’ in some of these night clubs and, in the judgment of your Committee, the ‘wild’ stranger and the foolish native should have the check-rein applied a little bit…Your Committee believes that these ‘wild’ people should not be tumbling out of these resorts at six or seven o’clock in the morning to the scandal and annoyance of decent residents on their way to daily employment.”
Evidently the city found something indecorous about both white and black people squeezing into Harlem’s smoky jazz clubs, a racial commingling that simply had to be stopped. According to the language of the law, it wasn’t pianos or organs or guitars with which the city took issue. Its targets were specifically brass and percussion instruments — in other words, the appurtenances of jazz.
These racist roots are still seen in how the cabaret law is applied today. Andrew Muchmore, an attorney and Williamsburg bar owner, filed a lawsuit in 2014 in attempt to have it ruled unconstitutional. He points out in his complaint that churches, ballet studios and high school proms are all technically violators. It’s curious, then, that 99 percent of hip hop, salsa and merengue establishments have been “effectively rendered unlawful,” the complaint contends. Muchmore predicts an answer from the court sometime next year.
The Department of Consumer Affairs, the body responsible for enforcing the cabaret law, said that due to pending litigation, it could not comment on specifics.
Obtaining a cabaret license is nearly impossible by design. Of the city’s 25,100 licensed food and beverage establishments, only 118 actually hold one. Unlike so many nightmarish bureaucratic webs, the application process doesn’t even feign simplicity. A daunting list of bullet points stretches into the eschaton: Once you’ve been approved by the fire department and had an electrical inspection, you must confront a likely hostile community board. Clear that hurdle and you can await your security background check, wire your security cameras and complete a pile of Department of Building documents. Are you done? Nope! Have you paid your license fee? Are you up on your child support?
City officials undoubtedly like the law because “it gives them a way to arbitrarily shut down places they have problems with,” Muchmore says. “I think it’s just one more tool in their infinite tool box to cause problems for any place they want to cause problems for.”
Barclay, the Bushwick bar owner, agreed. “At any time, they can flex on any bar in the city and close them down,” he said. “Whether they don’t like you because you’re particularly loud or rowdy, or because you’re associated with organized crime, or because you’re a gay bar in a more conservative neighborhood, they can waltz in and say ‘this person was dancing to the jukebox.’ They can pull your liquor license, and you don’t exist anymore.”
The law has been fought vigorously over the years. In 2003, the head of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Gretchen Dykstra, announced her intention of putting “the dance police” out of business. She did not. In 2005, human rights lawyer Norman Siegel and NYU law professor Paul Chevigny shuffled into the fold, and they stood a pretty good chance at success, too: It was, after all, Chevigny who was responsible for killing the “three musicians law” in 1988, allowing live music in bars and restaurants. They, too, failed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself couldn’t pull it off.
“It’s so antithetical to what the spirit of New York is about,” said Norman Siegel. “If you’d asked me 15 years ago, I’d have said ‘Of course we’re going to win. It makes no sense!’ But we did not prevail. It’s one of the disappointments of my legal career.”
Asked why this cabaret law is so hard to kill, Siegel blamed NIMBYs, who complain about late night ruckus, especially during the workweek.
As Muchmore lays out in his court filings, the city already has a bounty of rules and statutes to enforce any reasonable complaint about noise, overcrowding and loitering. The city also tends to invoke fire safety as a justification for hanging onto the law. “As far as I know, New York City is the only place in the world that claims that dancing makes a place more prone to fire,” Barclay says.
Siegel also suggested that elected officials tend to be hesitant to tackle the issue, since the club’s patrons are unlikely to live in their communities. As a City Councilmember, who would you rather placate: A single club owner, or a whole block of voters?
Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, which covers the East Village and the Lower East Side, insists that bar owners rarely apply for the cabaret license in the first place.
“I don’t hear people talking for or against it whatsoever,” she said. “We have a very great concern about over saturation of licensed establishments. But that does not have to do with the cabaret issue.” She added that it’s a fallacy that obtaining a license is hard. “If a business is zoned in an area that permits it, why is it so hard? We can’t stop it,” she said. “Most of our establishments are very tiny, so people don’t apply.”
I asked Barclay why he was attempting the impossible now, after so many failed attempts in the past. Following Oakland’s devastating Ghost Ship fire, in which 36 people were killed during a warehouse performance after faulty wiring caused a fire, Barclay said his bar has been visited often by the fire department. He appreciates the FDNY’s concern about his customers’ safety, but the issue runs deeper: when people can’t dance in a regulated environment, they’re forced to dance elsewhere.
“People who are already vulnerable, already marginalized, are getting pushed farther and farther out into warehouses with no regulation at all,” Barclay said. “I like warehouse parties, I think they’re great. But people aren’t in a warehouse because they like the aesthetic. They like it because they’re not allowed to dance anywhere else.”
“What you’re doing here is pushing people out of places that are safe, into places that are unsafe under the guise of keeping the safe,” he added.
No force on Earth will be able to stop anyone who wants to dance, Siegel says. He’s hopeful that the inauguration of Trump has perhaps awakened something in people who previously may have taken their freedom for granted.
“We failed, but there’s a new generation that is trying to accomplish what I and others were not able to accomplish,” Siegel said. “Hopefully dance will prevail.”