With Its 'No Dancing' Law Verging On Repeal, New York Legitimizes Its Nightlife : The Record A 90-plus-year-old law used to crack down on "fringe" music scenes in the country's cultural capital is on the verge of being removed from the books — joining its repeal will be a new Nightlife Mayor.
NPR logo With Its 'No Dancing' Law Verging On Repeal, New York Legitimizes Its Nightlife

With Its 'No Dancing' Law Verging On Repeal, New York Legitimizes Its Nightlife

A scene from The Roxy in New York. Kevin Fleming/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images hide caption

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Kevin Fleming/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

A scene from The Roxy in New York.

Kevin Fleming/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Last night, at the nightclub and circus-arts space House of Yes in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law legislation that establishes an Office of Nightlife and a Nightlife Advisory Board. Joined on stage by punk icon Marky Ramone and the prolific jazz artist Ron Carter, and surrounded by a packed crowd of club owners, DJs, dance activists and city employees, de Blasio joked that the soon-to-be-appointed Night Mayor of New York is "one of the coolest job titles you could ever hope to have." The Office of Nightlife and its advisory group will act as liaisons between various aspects of the nightlife industry and local communities, and are modeled after similar initiatives in London, Amsterdam and other European cities.

Drafted by Brooklyn Council Member Rafael Espinal (D-37), a Bed-Stuy native first elected to the New York State Assembly at the age of 26 and currently in his first term as a council member, the bill is the first in a docket of legislation that aims to support the city's vibrant nightlife culture. De Blasio's signature was the culmination of advocacy that has spanned decades.

But there is one more bill, also from Espinal and also dealing with nightlife in the city — No. 1652 — to push through City Hall, with the potential to address a pernicious, racially motivated law that has followed "fringe" musical scenes in the city for nearly a century.

When Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of jazz great Duke, stood in front of the New York City Council last Thursday, it was to testify in support of No. 1652. Introduced by Espinal earlier this year, the proposal would repeal the so-called "Cabaret Law," a New York City rule established in 1926 that disallows dancing in cabarets and public halls without a special license. "The freedom to be beyond category, to explore and express, through music and dance, is our human responsibility," Ellington said. "The current cabaret laws were designed to restrict, curtail and separate those freedoms."

In parallel to, and urged on by Espinal's presentation of these bills, outcry over the Cabaret Law has boiled over. At last week's hearing, Brooklyn nightclub owner John Barclay, a founder of the pro-repeal Dance Liberation Network, characterized the law as being "absurd, antiquated, racist and extremely embarrassing for our city."

For anyone who likes to go out at night in New York City, whatever their musical pleasure, this Prohibition-era rule has long been a running, if not especially funny, joke. Signs reading "NO DANCING" still hang in barrooms throughout the city — and while the law's effect is paraphrased as making it "illegal to dance" in New York, that description is technically untrue. What is unlawful is for a New York City establishment to host dancing without the proper license from the Department of Consumer Affairs.

The current law, as explained on the City of New York's website, states that "a place that is open to the public and sells food or drinks must have a Cabaret License to allow customers to dance." But according to nightlife professionals, obtaining this license is onerous, expensive and redundant, adding extra layers of paperwork to a process that already requires approval from the Department of Buildings, Fire Department, State Liquor Authority, Department of Health, commercial insurance companies and community boards, among other entities.

In a departure from past administrations, the one currently in office has pledged its unequivocal backing to the repeal. "The Mayor strongly supports repealing the law, while retaining several security requirements key to the public's safety. We feel there are better ways than the current law to create a strong nightlife economy that doesn't endanger those involved," Ben Sarle, deputy press secretary for Mayor de Blasio, told NPR.

New York City's dance-music culture is especially thriving of late, and a number of key players in the scene have rallied hard for the law's repeal. Under the larger banner of Let NYC Dance, groups like Dance Liberation Network, Dance Parade, NYC Artist Coalition and others have mobilized their masses, uniting with representatives of multiple musical genres and social justice nonprofits. Council Member Espinal has connected with many of these groups, drafted progressive nightlife-related legislation and gained the support of the Mayor's office along the way.

On Dec. 7, 1926, at a meeting of the Municipal Assembly of the City of New York during which the Cabaret Law was decided upon, the minutes read: "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." It's widely understood that the Cabaret Law was written with the intent to impose control over black clubs in Harlem and impede miscegenation.

Dancing in a Harlem nightclub, sometime in the late 1930s. The Cabaret Law was originally intended as a tool for cracking down on jazz clubs in the Manhattan neighborhood. Bettmann/Getty Images hide caption

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Bettmann/Getty Images

Dancing in a Harlem nightclub, sometime in the late 1930s. The Cabaret Law was originally intended as a tool for cracking down on jazz clubs in the Manhattan neighborhood.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Last week's hearing was held in the same room as that assembly 90 years prior. (Surely the fashion in the current-day chambers tends more colorful — one speaker sported transparent, four-inch-tall platform boots and sky-blue hair.) In her testimony last week, Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, a cofounder of the DJ collective Discwoman, promoter, booking agent and leader of Dance Liberation Network, posed a question both rhetorical and actual: "Why are we hanging onto a law that has been used historically and systematically to oppress black folks and other marginalized communities?"

The law, as it was originally written, inflicted strict curfews and specific rules upon a burgeoning jazz scene. No more than three musicians were allowed to play onstage without the venue securing the proper license, making most jazz bands verboten (that rule was declared unconstitutional in 1988). The "cabaret card" aspect of the law, which stood from the early '40s till 1967, demanded that all cabaret workers — from the bartender to the piano player — be fingerprinted, photographed and subject to a background check. The city capriciously revoked cards for bad behavior — Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday were banned from gigging in NYC for periods of time because of minor drug offenses.

Historically, it wasn't just jazz that bore the brunt of the city's enforcements. News articles from the '60s detail the licensing struggles suffered by folk clubs in Greenwich Village, and the famed discotheques of the '70s and '80s often operated along the edges of legality. Following the Happy Land arson tragedy in 1990, policing stepped up at underground social clubs uptown.

But it was under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's term where the weaponization of the law was most severe. Giuliani's MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots) task force worked to squelch NYC's nightlife, in reaction to grisly reports of deaths and drugs in clubland. MARCH agents would patrol bars and clubs looking for infractions such as patrons moving their bodies to music; if the venue hadn't secured the proper cabaret license, it was cause for fines, and could lead to closure.

Dance-music aficionados and music-industry professionals have previously tried, and failed, to strike the law. Though Giuliani's Broken Windows tactics made the city safer, it also caused some of New York's cultural capital to drain away. "There was a moment in the late '90s when electronic-music culture was emerging into the global mainstream," says Eric Demby, founder of the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, and a cofounder of Legalize Dancing NYC, a group formed around 1999. "We were going to places like Berlin, Detroit, London and San Francisco, and everyone had this cool version of the dance-music scene. But we would come home to New York, the greatest city in the world, and the city was holding back the culture."

Attempts to repeal the law floundered in City Hall in the mid-2000s; ultimately, it wasn't the right political moment, says Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer and former director of the NYCLU. In 2005, Siegel brought a case to NYS Supreme Court, to judicially challenge the Cabaret Law by arguing that expressive dancing is a constitutional right. He lost. Siegel still feels that the decision in that case was wrong. The Cabaret Law is "bad for New York," he says. "Every denial of expressive activity is a serious infringement. You can't give the government an inch because then they take a foot, then they take a yard, and you wake up one morning and you don't have expressive rights any more. Dancing is a fundamental civil right."

Though no doubt significant, "removing the cabaret license is first a symbolic gesture to right a historical wrong," says Espinal. Yet there is work to be done to fine-tune the bill, and properly communicate to the public exactly what the repeal will accomplish. "It's good symbolism, and symbolism we agree with," says Rob Bookman, a lawyer, lobbyist and counsel for the NYC Hospitality Alliance, an industry group. But Bookman cautions that "repealing the cabaret law will not increase by one space, by one place, where you can legally dance." (The only people who might resent the law's removal are the 104, at the time of this writing, establishments in NYC who already went through the arduous licensing process.)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signs a bill establishing the Office of Nightlife at the House of Yes in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Right, Marky Ramone. Jane Lerner hide caption

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Jane Lerner

Nightclubs in NYC are severely limited by zoning restrictions and street-level quality of life concerns, and their existences remain contingent upon the approval of numerous state and city agencies. Indeed, if the Cabaret Law disappears, the city will continue to impose a serious set of rules on nightclub operators who host dance parties.

"Dancing equals security and surveillance," says Barclay, the bar owner. In fact, the language around security staff and surveillance cameras that exists in the current version of the Cabaret Law will remain in the city's administrative code. "We don't have an issue with safety regulations," Barclay says, but he points out that 200 people dancing in a club legally requires more security measures than a group of 1,000 watching MMA fighting at a sports bar. The creation of the Office of Nightlife is intended to address and rectify such concerns.

After decades of attempts by activists, lawyers, and industry groups, why is the city agreeing to this reformation? A more diverse and left-leaning city government is one factor, and the current crews of pro-dance advocates have been organized and relentless, actively inspired by the national political climate. "We're all looking for a light and this was one that felt hopeful," Hutchinson tells NPR. "Even if dancing in bars isn't the most pressing issue, it's still part of the same oppressive system." All the players admit that finishing off the Cabaret Law, once and for all, is the right move.

Council Member Espinal sees this work as part of a larger political picture. "At a time when we are discussing the removal of statues with repressive history, it would only make sense [to] support removing a historically discriminatory law," he says.

Jamie Burkart, a founding member of NYC Arts Coalition, agrees. "This is a time where we need our community spaces more than ever," Burkart says. "I feel confident in 2017 that our city leaders can stand up and say that a law that was created to discriminate, a law that we have the complete power to change, is not going to stand."