Daily Tedium

We Can Dance If We Want To

NYC is about to lose a bizarre law for a city of its size: A ban on dancing in unlicensed bars or restaurants. How did this bizarre regulation come to life?

By Andrew Egan

New York City has long been known as a fairly progressive place, one known as welcoming to ethnic and cultural groups long marginalized by society. So it’s surprising that the city’s laws regarding dancing are more appropriate for a small town in an ‘80s movie.

The city’s long, strange aversion to dancing is finally expected to come to an end on October 31st when a prohibition-era law is expected to be repealed. Enacted in 1926, the Cabaret Law was originally more draconian, outlawing music of any form in bars, until it was amended to allow piano playing and radio. The law was used rigorously, but initially targeted speakeasies and integrated jazz clubs in Harlem.

Over the decades, the law mutated, indelibly having an effect on the city’s music scene. Musicians were eventually required to have a license to perform, and acquiring one required a background check and fingerprinting. Billie Holiday and Ray Charles were denied licenses, while Frank Sinatra refused to play in the city.

According to Vice, enforcement waned in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but found renewed vigor under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who used the law to control the ‘90s rave scene. Critics have long contended the law was racist, archaic, and stifling of creative expression.

These days, just 0.59 percent of the city’s bars and restaurants have the license. Of the nearly 25,000 bars and restaurant’s in five boroughs, less than 150 legally can allow their patrons to dance under the law.

Part of the reason for that? According to many bar and restaurant owners, licensing under the Cabaret Law is onerous in nearly impossible to navigate. (And these are the people that have successfully dealt with New York’s notoriously complicated liquor licensing.)

A lawsuit filed by the owner of the Williamsburg bar Muchmore’s details the requirements beyond licensing that Cabaret licensees are required to maintain, including digital surveillance at all entrances, limited operating hours, and detailed records of food and drink menus.

The lawsuit goes on to detail the quirky consequences the law has on NYC playlists, “In particular, Muchmore’s ‘avoids hosting dance-oriented genres of music, such as hip-hop, salsa, and meringue and instead limits musical entertainment folk music, rock music, experimental dance music, jazz and other music forms that are not conducive to dancing’ …”

Dancing has still been prevalent throughout but the ban might explain the amazing number of underground bars and nightclubs that operate without any licensing and sometimes leads to preventable tragedies. One task force in the ‘90s identified some 570 illegal clubs operating in the city.

Though dancing citations are issued far less than they were in the past, a group of Brooklyn activists are poised to overturn the 90-year tyranny against fun.

The vote in front of the city council on Tuesday could still retain the Cabaret Law, but Brooklyn-based councilman Rafael Espinal believes the votes are there. He told the New York Times in the days before the vote, “It’s over.”

And if that happens, Kevin Bacon must bum rush the Today show, shouting “Let’s dance!” If he doesn’t, it’s a wasted opportunity.

But at least New Yorkers can finally dance if they want to.

Above: A scene from NYC’s Copacabana nightclub in Times Square. (via Flickr)

Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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