Thursday, May 20, 2010

You Should Be Dancing (New York City and the Cabaret Law)

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?

Have fun.
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Anonymous said...

One thing that should be noted is that of the 200 cabaret licenses, we are losing upwards of 25 a year. The transformation of the Limelight into a glitzy shopping mall is perhaps the most graphic example. Most become retail spaces or *gasp* luxury condos. To my knowledge, community boards in Manhattan have only approved a handful of new licenses in the last decade, and only after protracted... and very costly... legal fights. Any attempt to do away with cabaret licenses has been fought vigorously by a select group of operators who say they represent the industry, but are truly only looking out for their own investments, to the exclusion os other's who don't have the luxury of unlimited bankrolls. In the end, it will take wrestling the power out of the hands of those who expect to open their windows and hear crickets in Manhattan after 10PM, and sadly, I don't see anyone with our agenda in mind willing to take them on.

New York Nights said...

I think the only group currently planning to take up this agenda is the Nightlife Preservation Community (NPC). You can find the story I did on them here:

But the NPC probably can't do it alone. Do you have any other suggestions of what can be done?

Anonymous said...

I read your article, and it seems that, sadly, they only did one event, and, even more sadly, it was done in a venue that, according to your report, just had their liquor license pulled. I see three things that absolutely need to happen in order to save nightlife in NYC.
1) A new mayor. Bloomberg thought he had pulled a fast one with his 'yeah, we'll kill the cabaret law as long as you close at 1am'. Luckilly some wise people saw through that smokescreen, but then that's where it died. NY needs a mayor who treasures and supports nightlife and understands that there are enough laws on the books to close down a trouble spot without every bar in NY with a DJ or band having to buzz-kill their customers with the 'no dancing' patrol. They also have to realize that without enough 'legal' venues where patrons can dance, they will find their own spaces - warehouses, basements, places with one means of egress. However, to this point, it seems that they used the Happy Land tragedy more to punish legal clubs than illegal ones.
2) Planned "Nightlife Zones". I hear all sorts of grand plans for places like the West Side Yards, The Brooklyn/Queens East River Shoreline, Willets Point, etc. ALL of them have as part of their plans mixed business and RESIDENTIAL. NYC doesn't NEED 50,000 new luxury condos. Take the cue from cities such as Boston (Landsdowne Street) or the club neighborhood carved out of Miami - where they incentified it by awarding 24-hour licenses!. A perfect place (although you'll probably never see it) is the southern tip of Governor's Island.
3) Allow NYPD off duty officers to work as security in clubs. The animosity between nightclubs and police did not happen organically - it was manufacured by such 'public servants' as Giuliani, Rudy Washington, and a slew of Police Commissioners. The police have no reason to want to ease off on their voracity - gee wouldn't it be nice if everyone were in bed by midnight and they could kick back all night in the stationhouse. I've seen it elsewhere - having an off-duty (or several) IN UNIFORM in a club is a BIG disincentive to those who would want to imbibe something other than the alcohol sold by the club
I reiterate, though, that the organization that fights the repeal of the cabaret law has to be made of of those who DON'T have a CL, NOT those who do. Look at it from this perspective - would you - the operator of a club that just spent upwards of $500,000 in legal fees and a year of paying rent with no revenue - want to kill the license that gives you as close to a monopoly as you can get in this business?
Sadly, though, there isn't a lot I can do from my perspective - I am not a resident of NYC. Rather, I have been involved in nightlife for 30+ years as a DJ, promoter and consltant. Unfortunately, I have never been able to 'break through', because there are no small venues which offer legal dancing where upstarts can start small and move on to larger venues. I will not spin in a space that does not have dancing - I find it totally counterproductive to what I hope to accomplish. So I have to cheer (and boo) from the sideliines, and hopefully urge those who CAN make a difference to do so.