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 in New York’s City Hall to discuss the bizarre dance-centered legislation, shining a light on the law's long and controversial past.

Enacted in 1926, New York City’s “Cabaret Law” requires businesses to obtain a permit before dancing is allowed on the premises. In legal terms, this means a specific 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.” Today's meeting at City Hall featured discussions of both the potential repeal of this law and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s newly announced desire to hire a representative of nightlife interests, known colloquially as a “nightlife ambassador.” All vocalization and clapping from the audience was prohibited. Attendees instead made their support known by enthusiastically waving their hands in the air.

The implementation of New York's Cabaret Law in both historic and modern practice is riddled with controversy. In the twenties, the law provided an official rationale for closing predominately African-American jazz clubs in Harlem. More recently, Cabaret Laws were used to shut down select bars and nightclubs as part of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” policy. Current Cabaret Laws, while still enforced, are a skeleton of what they once were. The law as it was originally crafted singled out musicians who played jazz instruments, also requiring them to obtain “Cabaret Cards” before they could perform. Jazz icons like Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk fell victim to Cabaret regulations, eventually 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 He stated his intent to get the Cabaret Law repealed not only due to its racist history but also to the economic impact having restrictions like the Cabaret Law can have on small businesses. Andrew Muchmore, a bar owner and attorney in Brooklyn, NY currently suing over the Cabaret Law, stated New York's legislation is one "with no equivalent in other advanced nations.” His lawsuit argues dancing is covered under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and thus, laws like the Cabaret Law violate certain inalienable rights.

While many participating in today's discussion spoke to the economic and cultural benefits of repealing the law, emphasizing the personal connection people have to dance and dance music quickly became a key point of discussion. Some on the panel told stories of endless nights spent the Lower East Side's once-numerous underground clubs, while others explained their family dance traditions, traditions they wished to carry on but felt they could not because of the restrictive law.

As they spoke, New York City's nightlife community revealed both strength and interdependence. City Council members gave casual waves to venue owners. Bartenders made small talk with tattoo-covered activists. Advocacy groups gathered to AirDrop photos and notes to each other, and attendees from all backgrounds talked about the fear of raids that Cabaret Laws insert 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 or venue in the community.

Dance is a powerful cultural tool in collective behavior. Communities form through time spent together, and the immersive, political function of dance serves as important to people of New York as the world at large.

Today's meeting was organized with community in mind, and all actors noted community consultation and consensus was needed before any dramatic action is to be 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.