For a city known for its nightlife and place in dance music history, NYC has a very strange law on the books. Its 91-year-old cabaret law prohibits three or more people from dancing in any public venue without a special license. The law has been on the books since 1926, when it was enacted specifically to crack down on black jazz clubs in Harlem, where both black and white New Yorkers were gathering and dancing together. It’s been challenged many times, but, despite its well-documented racist beginnings, never successfully repealed.
Over the decades, the law has continued to serve as a useful tool in the over-policing of black and brown communities, LGBTQ spaces and underground music scenes. (Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani was a notorious fan.) This reality has doubtless contributed to the arcane ordinance’s longevity. Nevertheless, it may at last have met its match. A coalition of New York’s nightlife and arts communities is spearheading a new movement to fight it. On Thursday, representatives of the appealingly named Dance Liberation Network joined members of the NYC Artist Coalition and community oriented arts organization Commend NYC for a town hall meeting at Bushwick venue the Market Hotel to call for the law’s repeal.
Addressing a full room, Dance Liberation organizer Frankie Hutchinson (who also co-founded all-female DJ collective Discwoman) underscored the law’s racist history, citing clauses in the original law that directly targeted black musicians, and drawing a parallel between the cabaret law and Jim Crow. Saxophones, for example, were once not allowed. “None of these parts of the law are still in place but it is essential to think about when addressing its oppressive origins. Who is getting penalized here and why are we still holding on to a law that did this? It cannot be divorced from its racist roots, which is why we have to question why it’s still here,” she argued.
Only 133 cabaret licenses are currently active, and some portion of those are held by strip clubs. The rest are mainly in the hands of big dance clubs with deep pockets who charge steep covers. Advocates for the law’s repeal argued that the difficulty of obtaining a license amounts to a citywide dance ban, and that the ordinance, which is supposedly being enforced in the interests of public safety, actually courts disaster by driving dance parties underground and into illegal and potentially unsafe venues. The point was made repeatedly that restrictions on dancing were restrictions on marginalized communities and had a chilling effect on the city’s grassroots cultural institutions.
Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City was present to listen to the groups’ recommendations and expressed support for their goals, saying “I have a belief that artists are key to this city and that artists make this city great.” Bushwick city council members Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal were also in attendance and said a few words. Both came out as being staunchly pro-dancing. Espinal announced that, in fact, he had introduced a bill last year to repeal the law. He recalled a memorable night when he had gone on a date that led to dancing at the Market Hotel. “It was memorable because we were having a lot of fun. There is no reason why the city should get in the way of fun,” he said.
In an interview during the event, Dance Liberation organizer Nikki Brown emphasized the meaningful statement that repealing the law would make: “It would be a way to legitimize creative communities, to end the criminalization of artists, of dancing, of creative communities. It would be a way for the city to say to them, ‘We value you. You are an integral part of this city and we understand that the protection of these communities is essential to the success of our city.’”
Dance Liberation is circulating a petition to repeal the law. Check it out here.