Lawsuit Champions Right to Dance in New York

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New York is known for its vibrant nightlife, yet in many bars and restaurants it's illegal to dance. Now, a law professor is challenging the "Cabaret Laws," claiming they violate a dancer's right of free expression. The city says dancing by patrons is not a protected right — and can prove it.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Life and liberty--not a problem. But if your pursuit of happiness involves moving to a good beat, here's some advice: Do not head for New York City. Zoning laws make it illegal to dance in most of the city's bars and restaurants. Now some dancers have teamed up with a law professor to challenge the rules. They say dancing is a protected form of expression under the state Constitution. Here's NPR's Luke Burbank.

(Soundbite of applause)

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

It's a Tuesday night at Joe's Pub in Manhattan, and the place is packed as singer Rhett Miller launches into a number.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. RHETT MILLER: (Singing) Nineteen, it's not the age of reason...

BURBANK: It's by no means hip-hop, but even so, many in the crowd, especially those up near the bar, are swaying back and forth to the music in rhythm, getting dangerously close to an illegal activity.

Mr. SERGE BECKER (Owner, Joe's Pub): In New York City, you know, the cultural capital of the world, there's a law that forbids them to dance.

BURBANK: Serge Becker owns Joe's Pub. On more than one occasion, he's been ticketed and fined thousands of dollars for allowing patrons to, as it were, shake their groove things. He says he's sometimes unaware a violation has even occurred until a summons shows up in the mail.

Mr. BECKER: And on this summons, it actually describes what they witnessed, and what they've witnessed is, like, whatever, four people moving rhythmically to music. This is how they describe it. It's outrageous.

BURBANK: The problem for Becker and other owners who'd like to allow dancing is that they don't have a city-issued cabaret license. The rule dates back to 1926, when New York's Committee on Local Laws decried jazz clubs and the behavior of their `wild strangers and foolish natives.' The result was a strict zoning code banishing dance to non-residential areas only, which pretty much means a dock over the Hudson River if you're talking about Manhattan. Many club owners and would-be dancers say the law is outdated; they'd like to see it changed. So they've pinned their hopes on Paul Chevigny, a 70-year-old New York University law professor and sometimes tap dancer.

Professor PAUL CHEVIGNY (New York University): There aren't enough places to dance.

BURBANK: Chevigny is uniquely qualified for the job. Fifteen years ago, after hearing what he describes as `a terrible jazz violin performance,' he wondered why his local club never featured a saxophone player. It turned out it was because of another of the cabaret laws, one that declared only stringed instruments and piano could be played in most venues. He challenged that law and won on the grounds that the performance was a protected form of free expression. It's the same logic he's now using to take on the dance law.

Prof. CHEVIGNY: It's very much the case that the dance expresses something about the culture, and it also identifies you as part of that culture.

BURBANK: Joining Chevigny in the fight as co-plaintiffs are a handful of dancers representing various forms: electronica, Western swing, country-western, house and a self-described Goth. The suit claims the dancing is a protected form of expression under New York's state Constitution. The city, however, disagrees, and has asked a judge to dismiss the suit. Although they wouldn't go on tape for this interview, officials say there's a concern that changing the law would lead to loud dance clubs popping up in residential neighborhoods, and they say they don't agree with Chevigny's claim that dancing by patrons is a protected form of expression. They point to a 1989 Supreme Court case, City of Dallas vs. Stanglin, in which the court held recreational dancing is not protected by the First Amendment.

Ms. LYNN TAYLOR-CORBETT (Director; Choreographer): I came to New York when I was 17. I danced in clubs all the time. It's where I found my style.

BURBANK: Lynn Taylor-Corbett is a director and choreographer in New York. Sitting in a dance studio in the city's Theater District, she says she's outraged at the cabaret laws because of what she sees as the artistic importance of social dancing.

Ms. TAYLOR-CORBETT: This is where break dancing arose. This is where, you know, really hip-hop came to fruition.

BURBANK: Taylor-Corbett has danced with the Alvin Ailey company and worked on Broadway, but probably her most well-known achievement was when she choreographed the 1984 hit movie "Footloose," about a fictional Midwest town that doesn't allow dancing--that is, until the feisty Ren McCormack, played by Kevin Bacon, moves to town.

Ms. TAYLOR-CORBETT: And when we were first reading the script, I remember we said to each other, `Will they really buy this? Will they really buy that dancing would be prohibited?' (Laughs) Oh, dear. (Laughs)

BURBANK: Do you ever think that if you could just play that dramatic final scene from "Footloose," where Kevin Bacon makes that impassioned speech, for Mayor Bloomberg, this could all get turned around?

(Soundbite of movie "Footloose")

Mr. KEVIN BACON: (As Ren McCormack) There is a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to laugh and a time to weep, and there is a time to dance.

Ms. TAYLOR-CORBETT: (Laughs) If Kevin Bacon would go with me--maybe he's the one we have to call. Kevin, come and make a speech with me, OK?

BURBANK: A New York state judge will consider the matter soon. In the meantime, many people--club owners, dancers, lawyers, choreographers and others--have filed affidavits supporting a change to the dance law. However, as of this report, Kevin Bacon is not one of them. Luke Burbank, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of song "Footloose")

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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