If there’s anything certain in this world, it’s that New Yorkers love to cut the rug. Perhaps counterintuitively, then, in the city that gave us bebop, salsa, disco, and hip hop, it is illegal to dance in most public establishments. That’s because New York’s cabaret law, enacted in 1926, requires bars and restaurants where three or more people are dancing to have a special cabaret license, which is nearly impossible to get.
Passed during the Harlem Renaissance, when racial integration and anti-establishment thinking were on the rise in swinging jazz clubs, the cabaret law allows police to fine or even shut down places where people dance. Although some egregious original provisions (like outlawing saxophones) have been lifted in subsequent decades, opponents say the law is still an assault on freedom of expression, an instrument of oppression against already marginalized communities, and that it forces would-be dancers out of safe, highly regulated spaces and into potentially dangerous settings.
This has become all the more urgent in recent months, after a fire at an underground dance party at Ghost Ship in Oakland, California killed 36 people, the deadliest structure fire in the United States in over a decade.
In January, the NYC Artist Coalition began working with the Department of Cultural Affairs, seeking to ensure that a similar tragedy does not happen in New York. One key effort is to repeal the cabaret law, which has recently been used against a number of venues in Brooklyn.
Last week, the NYC Artist Coalition joined with Dance Liberation Network to organize a town hall-style meeting calling on the city to lift the dance ban. The event was held at Market Hotel, a Bushwick venue that has stopped hosting live music after the police suddenly revoked their liquor license and raided them last October.
Several hundred people packed the room, with members of the city government, including Cultural Affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, in attendance to hear out nightlife promoters and artists.
“I came to New York City in 1979; I was an artist living in a loft. I was that kid who had to borrow money from my girlfriend, that’s how little money I had,” Finkelpearl said. “I have in my heart a belief that artists are key to this city, that artists are the people who make the city great.”
Two city council members, Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal, both representing parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Ridgewood, spoke in support of the movement.
“I’ve probably danced illegally more than anyone in this room,” Reynoso told the crowd to cheers. “So you’ll catch me dancing illegally in other places until we get this law gone.”
Espinal introduced a bill last year that would have repealed the law, but it failed to gather votes. “I have a little confession to make—this isn’t my first time in Market Hotel,” he said, drawing big laughs from the audience. “I came here eight years ago on on an OKCupid date. We met at Mr. Kiwi’s, and she put 40s in her backpack. It was a sweaty, loud, memorable, fun night. There’s no reason why the city should get in the way of fun.”
One of the most vocal opponents of the cabaret law has been John Barclay, owner of a popular Bushwick dance music hub that he wishes to remain unnamed to avoid retribution from the city. The venue has been raided, fined, and faced closure over the cabaret law, Barclay says, despite meeting a full spectrum of safety regulations.
“We constantly live in fear and paranoia of our city government,” Barclay said. “New Yorkers are going to dance no matter what. So if you kick them out of a legit place that’s hyper-regulated, like mine and so many other places, they’re going to go to a warehouse and dance. And if you close down that warehouse or DIY spot, they’ll go into a pit full of alligators and snakes and dance—there’s no doubt about that.”
Getting this additional cabaret license is simply impossible for most bars and restaurants, even though they are already exhaustively regulated for health and safety. The cabaret application process is lengthy, complicated, and expensive, involving coordination with multiple city departments, approval from a likely-hostile community board, employee background checks, installation of specific video surveillance equipment, and fees of up to $1,000.
Today, out of over 25,000 bars and restaurants in New York City, only 118 have cabaret licenses, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs. So chances are if you’ve ever danced in New York, it was illegal.
New Yorkers are going to dance no matter what. If you close down that warehouse or DIY spot, they’ll go into a pit full of alligators and snakes and dance, there’s no doubt about that. – John Barclay, club owner
Some businesses have had to stop hosting music that might make people dance after receiving threats or legal action from the city.
“It’s laws like the NYC cabaret law that illuminate the legacy between slavey, Jim Crow, and today,” said Frankie Hutchinson, co-founder of feminist techno collective Discwoman. “Music, dance, and poetry are integral modes of expression for the African American community, so, regrettably, it isn’t hard to understand the impetus behind the cabaret law at that point in history, rife with racism and violence against black folks.”
Until the late 1960s, musicians were required to carry “cabaret cards” in order to perform in New York City, for which they had to be fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated by police, and reapply every two years. Discrimination was endemic, and black musicians were routinely denied approval, or had their cards revoked, preventing them from performing in the city. Undercover officers scoured nightclubs for artists who lacked the credential, and nearly every jazz legend of that period was banned from performing at one time or another, including Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis.
Music, dance, and poetry are integral modes of expression for the African American community, so, regrettably, it isn’t hard to understand the impetus behind the cabaret law at that point in history, rife with racism and violence against black folks. – Frankie Hutchinson, co-founder of Discwoman
For some, this amounted to a grim indignity, for others it led to personal and financial ruin. Charlie Parker had his card revoked in 1951, effectively cutting short his career; he got it back two years later, but he never fully recovered, succumbing to stress and heroin addiction shortly thereafter.
During the 1970s and 80s, the law was largely forgotten, until it returned with a vengeance in the late ‘90s, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who weaponized it against the ascendant house and hip hop scenes, which were positioned against big-money tourism and real estate development.
Raids of nightclubs became routine, focused most harshly against the black, gay, and poor.
“This law, while it has changed forms, still targets those already marginalized, making it impossible not to address how it was founded. It cannot be divorced from its racist roots, which is why we have to question why it’s still here,” Hutchinson said.
Working to end the restriction on dancing, activists say, is a crucial part of ensuring there is a future for arts spaces in New York, the city seen as the culture capital of the United States.
Over 2,500 people have so far signed Dance Liberation Network’s online petition, and there will be another organizing event on April 25, at Williamsburg venue Muchmore’s, which itself encountered legal trouble for allegedly having dancing in 2007.
“It’s hard to believe that our city government has a law on the books banning an act of expression as basic and universal as dancing,” the petition reads. “It sounds like the behavior of a repressive regime and certainly has no place in a city as tolerant, diverse, and respectful of human expression as ours is.”