Since 1926, a law has made it illegal to dance in a large majority of New York City's bars and nightclubs, but according to a report from The New York Times, a bill to repeal it is expected to pass on Tuesday, October 31. For nearly a century, the so-called Cabaret Law has been used to police the playing of music and social dancing in New York City establishments. Though it has changed over the years to relax its strictures on musicians themselves, the ban on dancing has withstood multiple attempts at repeal since its institution the Prohibition era. But now, a bill to repeal the law introduced by councilman Rafael Espinal will be voted on by the city council on Tuesday. Espinal tells the Times that he has ensured the 26 votes necessary to pass it.
This vote follows a concerted campaign by a coalition Nightlife promoters, activists, and artist coalitions in New York City. The program, called Let NYC Dance, was formed by Dance Parade, the Dance Liberation Network, the NYC Artist Coalition, the People's Cultural Plan, the Floasis, Color of Change, Legalize Dance, and Dance/NYC. On June 19, members of this program and other figures from New York City's nightlife scene gathered on the steps of city hall for a press conference in advance of the first ever oversight hearing on the Cabaret Law—instigated by Councilman Espinal, chair of the committee on Consumer Affairs. Now, just four months later, all signs point to an imminent repeal of the law.
Right now, however, dancing is banned in a vast majority of New York's nightlife establishments. According to figures cited in a THUMP report earlier this year, only 97 of over nearly 25,000 establishments have a license that allows patrons to dance legally. Nightlife activists have explained that these licenses are notoriously difficult to obtain due to zoning regulations and the long waiting periods required to get the approval of the multiple government agencies involved in the application process.
One of the reasons the bill has stayed on the books for so long is that, per a 1987 New York Times story, it has been used to effectively police fire safety and occupancy rules. But over the years, activists and journalists have also noted that the law has a "racist legacy." Tens of thousands of venues operate without cabaret licenses, the chances that any one of them will be breaking code on a given night are pretty high. Activists say, however, that it has been used disproportionately on establishments—and performers—most often frequented by people of color. In the 1990s, for example, it has been argued that Rudy Giuliani's "quality of life" campaign used the law to directly police "Latin clubs above 59th Street."
When the law was first introduced in the 20s, it banned the performance of ensembles of more than three and only permitted the playing of "strings, keyboards, and electronic soundsystems" which, of course, affected Harlem Jazz clubs and Jazz bands most directly. In 1943, the law expanded so that musicians were required to carry a "cabaret card" to play in venues in New York City. Prominent jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday had their cards suspended at various points in their career, which prohibited them from performing legally in the city.
In more recent years, the law has been used to crack down on bars and nightclubs, seemingly at the city's whims. Some say that policing has "relaxed" under Mayor Bill De Blasio's tenure, but the repeal of the law will undoubtedly give a little more breathing room to all of the city's nightlife establishments.
A spokesman for De Blasio told the Times today that "the mayor strongly supports repealing the law," but he wants to keep some of the security provisions—like requiring security cameras and guards at large venues—which have been added to the law over time.
Councilman Espinal, for his part, was brief in his remarks to the Times: "It's over."
Colin Joyce is either at the club or on Twitter.