After years of dragging their feet, New York City politicians are expected to finally face the music and let us dance—legally.
On Tuesday, the City Council is set to repeal the reviled Cabaret Law, which has made dancing illegal in the vast majority of the city's bars and restaurants for nearly a century. While the Prohibition-era law requires establishments to have a cabaret license for social dancing, those licenses are nearly impossible to obtain, and only 27 out of the city's roughly 25,000 bars and restaurants currently hold one.
As a result, enforcement of the archaic law—a favorite tool of the Giuliani administration—has long been unpredictable and inconsistent, according to nightlife advocates and small business owners.
"What we've been saying is that having a law that is not enforced across the board can be very dangerous," Olympia Kazi, a member of the NYC Artist Coalition, told Gothamist. "The reports we have from venues shows that certain demographics may attract more attention from enforcement agencies—if there is a hip-hop show that is likely to have African American youth, for example, then there may be enforcement."
She also described the law as a "trojan horse," which allowed police to enter an establishment and then bust them on other infractions, even if the dancing charge is eventually dropped. Between January of 2016 and April of 2017, 36 bars in New York paid out around $40,000 in fines for allowing their patrons to dance without a cabaret license, according to DNAinfo. Those fines, which start at $1,000, were concentrated in Lower Manhattan, Jackson Heights and Corona and Ozone Park.
These are the businesses that paid fines to the state for allowing dancing without a cabaret license since Jan. 1, 2016.
"This has been on the books for almost a century, and over the years it's been unfairly used against marginalized communities—communities of color, the LGBTQ community, as well as artist communities," added Council Member Rafael Espinal, who introduced the repeal bill earlier this year. "There are arguments that it's not as enforced anymore, but if you look at history and numbers over the past few years, it continues to target the same communities as it always has."
Whether or not the enforcement of the law has evolved, the discriminatory intention of the legislation has been clear for nearly a century. When it was originally passed in 1926, the Board of Alderman’s Committee on Local Laws wrote in its recommendation that, "there has been altogether too much ‘running wild’ in some of these night clubs and, in the judgment of your Committee, the ‘wild’ stranger and the foolish native should have the check-rein applied a little bit." The original legislation also banned specific instruments in unlicensed venues; string instruments and pianos were just fine, but wind, brass, and percussion instruments—the staples of jazz music—were restricted.
The soon-to-be-successful repeal effort comes amid a larger mobilization of nightlife advocates, many of whom recently worked with Council Member Espinal to establish the country's first-ever the Office of Nightlife. Currently, the mayor has just three more weeks to appoint a so-called Night Mayor, who will act as a liaison between City Hall and New York's $10 billion nightlife industry, while also serving on behalf of the city's remaining DIY venues.
"It's great to see people who have never been part of the political process come together around issues that they feel are unjust and affect communities in New York City," Espinal noted. The City Council is expected to vote to repeal the law on Tuesday afternoon—we'll update accordingly.