By Gamal Hennessy
This Saturday marks the fourth annual New York Dance Parade. The festival is a celebration of all forms of dance, the cultures that shape them, and contributions they make to the diversity of New York City. It is also a grass roots attempt to expose the double standards that nightlife faces, specifically the law that makes it illegal to dance in most New York clubs.
Since the 1926, there has been a New York City law that makes it illegal for a bar or club to have more than a few people dancing to music unless it had specific permission, in the form of a cabaret license, for that activity. The reasoning for this law comes from the social and political climate of the era. The 1920’s saw a rise in the then perceived evils of women’s liberation and interracial dating. Jazz clubs were seen as a flashpoint for these trends. The law gave City Hall the tools to shut down the venues that promoted behavior they didn’t like. Luckily, the law didn’t stop the flourishing of jazz, greater rights and independence for women or interracial dating, but it stayed on the books for almost 80 years before it was enforced again.
“Quality of Life”
The Giuliani administration began to use the law to shut down clubs under the pretense of avoiding disasters like the Happy Land Social Club fire. His real aim was to shut venues that didn’t conform to his “quality of life” crusade. As it always does, the nightlife industry found creative ways to get around the law and keep butts moving. Venues used lookouts, warning lights and DJ’s would instantly switch from dance music to soft rock whenever the ‘dance police’ were spotted in the area.
Depending on whom you ask, when Bloomberg came into office he either tried to repeal the cabaret laws or use it to permanently roll back the closing time of New York nightlife from 4 AM to 1 AM. Nightlife advocates, who lobbied for several years to have the law taken off the books, rejected the 2004 proposal because of the connection between dancing and closing times. A subsequent legal challenge by grass roots organizations including the Dance Parade and Metropolis in Motion failed when a judge ruled that nightlife dancing is not protected form of speech under the 1st Amendment. The law currently remains in place. Out of the 1,100 nightlife spots in New York, only 200 currently have a cabaret license.
The cabaret law is a prime example of attacking culture and expression in the name of public safety. By forcing operators to acquire a license for dancing, we have created a system that economically punishes venues that comply by forcing them to compete with venues that ignore the law. But a more basic point is the irrationality of the basic law. It is arbitrary and nonsensical to conclude that music is a protected art form, but dancing is not protected. The two art forms go together. It is hypocritical and pretentious to see ballet and ballroom dancing as high art but reject salsa and break dancing as artless. It is repressive and inhumane to require a license for something as fundamental as the expressive movement of the human body.
There are issues of overcrowding, ventilation, emergency exits and other security measures in certain clubs, but prohibiting dance doesn’t solve any of these problems. People can be packed into a bar tighter than a rush hour subway without any dancing taking place. If you try to stop people from dancing, you will not stop overcrowding. You will not make anyone safer. You won’t even stop people from dancing. The only goal that can be reached by forcing a cabaret license on us is undermining one of the pillars that make New York a world class city.
Societe Perrier ran a story earlier this week about the Dance Parade where they stated “Dance is vital in healthy societies, helping people to communicate and affirm individual and collective identity.” In other words, it is a necessary element of who we are. The Mayor, the Governor and a U.S. Senator from New York have all publicly endorsed the Dance Parade as a positive expression of New York culture. At what point will they back up those statements with changes in the law that protect and support a form of art we can all participate in?