Photo Credit: Resident Advisor
Most New Yorkers didn’t know they were actually breaking the law when they were swaying or dancing in almost any restaurant or bar in the city, but thanks to a recent change to an outdated law, they’re not anymore.
Last week, to the joy of many invested city-dwellers, the New York City Council voted to abolish ‘The Cabaret Law’, a nearly 100 year old statute that banned dancing in bars and restaurants not in possession of a “cabaret license". In a 44-1 vote on October 31st, this Footloose style law disappeared from the City’s rule books like the brisk Halloween breeze.
The Cabaret Law, imposed in New York from 1926 through last week, went through a few changes in it’s 91 year history. When it was first went into effect it was broadly enforced throughout the city and it banned more than just dance. The original law stated that “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form of amusement” be banned from any “room, place, or space” that didn’t hold a license. It is now believed that this was due in part to the Charleston dance craze of 1925.
It wasn’t until 1936 when radio and piano playing were allowed back in, and in 1940, in what many consider a striking blow to the African American music and dance communities, the law was altered to require musicians, singers, and other employees of a cabaret to carry a strongly regulated New York City Cabaret Card. In 1971 it was changed once again to state that no more than three musicians could play in a cabaret at one time. In the late 1980’s, the three musician sub-addition was deemed unconstitutional and removed, but still, the dance-ban remained. During the Giuliani administration, the law was brought to the spotlight again when the Mayor used it in his quality of life campaign to clean up the city.
A 1930’s Harlem Club. Photo Credit: NPR/Getty
A cabaret license itself was reportedly extremely difficult to obtain. In order to get a New York City Department of Consumer Affairs issued cabaret license, applicants were subject to fingerprinting, submitting myriads of financial information, paying large fees, and navigating through city bureaucracy. Many small business have noted that obtaining a license was almost impossible. According to several sources, out of the over 25,000 food and drink establishments in New York City, there were just over 100 issued licenses.
It is the racial and prejudiced undertones of the law’s enactment and subsequent enforcement, however, that caused issue over the years of the prohibition-era rule’s reign.
“It's really understood and believed that [the Cabaret Law] was implemented in order to keep white people and black people from intermingling and dancing together in Harlem jazz bars,” Ina Sotirova told NPR. Sotriova is the producer of the film Freedom2Dance which explored the historical ramifications of the Cabaret Law.
Proponents of the law, especially during the years of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign to clean up the city by forcibly prosecuting quality of life crimes, argued that it kept noise levels down in residential neighborhoods and kept places of entertainment safer.
Critics argued that the enforcement was targeting the African American and LGBTQ communities. They also said that by making social dancing almost impossible, the city was setting itself up for disaster.
“This law, instead of making [dancing safer] in New York — it's actually creating and amplifying the need for illegal, unregulated and often unsafe spaces to go dancing,” Sotriova said.
John Barclay, who owns a Brooklyn nightclub, told the New York Times, “When we stop people from dancing, they go straight to these warehouses,” in reference to the 2016 deadly fire in the Ghost Ship Warehouse in Oakland, California. “People haven’t stopped dancing, they’re just dancing in these extremely unsafe, unregulated environments.”
Photo Credit: TimeOut New York
The great news for New Yorkers, both dancers and not, is that the city has taken a progressive step forward away from a law that seemed to, at times, be used to purposely put-down certain cultural groups.
But also… it sure is going to be a lot more fun to go out for dinner and drinks!