The Fight Against New York's Dance Ban

By Braden Bjella

Published June 19, 2017

New York City has a ban on dancing.

Yes, really.

Today, a group of activists, venue owners, and concerned dancers gathered at New York’s City Hall to discuss repealing the city’s dance ban.

Enacted in 1926, New York City’s “Cabaret Law” requires businesses to obtain a permit before allowing people to dance on their premises. In legal terms, this means that, “a Cabaret License is required for any business that sells food and / or beverages to the public and allows patron dancing in a room, place, or space.” The meeting at City Hall discussed both the potential repeal of this law and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s newly announced desire to hire a “nightlife ambassador,” a position which already exists in several major cities around the world. City Council members heard both concerns about the law and the government’s response to these concerns. While vocalization and clapping from the crowd was prohibited, attendees made their support known by waving their hands in the air.

The implementation and use of the Cabaret Law both historically and in modern practice is riddled with controversy. In the twenties, the law’s primary use was to close predominately African-American jazz clubs in Harlem, and, more recently, the law was used to shut down bars as part of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s enforcement of “Broken Windows” policing. It should also be noted that the current Cabaret Law, while still enforced, is a skeleton of what it once was; the law as it was originally crafted singled out musicians using instruments associated with jazz, as well as requiring them to obtain “Cabaret Cards” before they could perform. This policy resulted in jazz icons like Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk having their right to publicly play music in New York City suspended.

In his opening statement, City Council member Rafael Espinal made comparisons to the 80’s film Footloose, which famously takes place in a town where dancing is against the law. He stated his intent to get the Cabaret Law repealed for a variety of reasons related not only its racist history but also to the economic impact that having restrictions like the Cabaret Law can have on small businesses.

Andrew Muchmore, a bar owner and attorney in Brooklyn, NY currently suing over this law, stated that the law is one with “no equivalent in other advanced nations.” His lawsuit argues that dancing is covered under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and thus, laws like the Cabaret Law violate certain inalienable rights.

While many participating in the discussion today spoke to the economic and cultural benefits of repealing the law, points were also put forth about the personal connections people have to both dance and dance music. Some told stories of spending nights dancing with their friends, while others explained their family traditions of dance, traditions they wished to carry on but felt they could not because of the restrictive law.

As they spoke, the community surrounding nightlife in New York City quickly became apparent. City Council members gave casual waves to venue owners. Bartenders made small talk with bar patrons. Members of different advocacy groups shared photos and notes, and attendees from all backgrounds talked about the fear of raids the Cabaret Law inserts into their daily lives. Rachel Nelson, owner of several bars across Brooklyn and participant in the Cabaret Law protests, said that venue and bar owners have no idea when these laws will be enforced or how dramatic their enforcement will be. Officers enforcing this law have been known to show up in tactical gear on suspicion, which Nelson claims causes confusion, fear, and paints a bad picture of the bar/venue in the community.

The importance of dance cannot be overstated. Dance is both a form of self expression and a powerful tool in collective behavior. Communities are formed by the time they spend together, and the joyous, immersive, and political power of dance is important to people throughout New York and the world at large.

This meeting was organized with community in mind, and all actors professed a desire to have community consultation and consensus before any dramatic action is taken. However, the crowd made their desires clear with frequent, silent cheers: repeal the dance ban, and do it soon.

Sign the petition to repeal the Cabaret Law here.

Braden Bjella is writer, music maker, and lots of other things. Follow him on Twitter @BradenBjella.