Nightlife

It's Time to Legalize Dancing in NYC

Legendary DJ Jonathan Toubin on why, when it comes to cabaret laws, he's "Glad to See You Go."
September 28, 2017, 5:20pm
Photos by Nick Gazin. Collage by Lia Kantrowitz

New York City recently announced some major administrative and regulatory changes to its nightlife. We asked legendary DJ Jonathan Toubin, of New York Night Train fame, what these new developments could mean for the Big Apple.

On September 20, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill establishing New York City's first-ever Office of Nightlife. As someone who's been involved in New York nightlife for a couple of decades, first as a musician and later as a DJ, I'm thrilled to hear that, along with creating a new position for what is being colloquially dubbed as the "Night Mayor," the repeal of the city's outdated cabaret law is finally being taken seriously.

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These historically racist legal codes date back to the days of Prohibition. Back in 1926, during the generational wars of the height of the Jazz Age, Mayor Jimmy Walker signed a series of administrative rules designed to not only help restrict the illegal sale of alcohol in New York speakeasies, but also to prevent the interracial co-mingling and dancing that was becoming increasingly common. Because people danced exclusively to live music at that point, the law also applied to musicians. Venues thus needed a cabaret license to present live music and/or dancing, and musicians themselves were required to carry New York City Cabaret Identification Cards. Not only were these licenses difficult to obtain and easy to revoke by design, they required musicians be fingerprinted and interviewed in order to perform. Both venues and musicians could have their permits revoked due to a "morals clause." National treasures like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, all three of whom have appeared on federal postage stamps, had their cards revoked and faced huge setbacks when they couldn't legally perform in New York City.

Cabaret Identification Cards were abolished in 1967, and by the late 80s, the weakening laws seemed to have lost their grip on live music. But while the cabaret law lay dormant in clubland for long periods during its nine-decade reign, it was repeatedly resurrected over the years as an excuse to access, harass, and often shut down nightclubs. It's no surprise that black, brown, LGBTQ, and countercultural venues bore the brunt of these legislations. Despite how repugnant the cabaret law has been since its inception, and how impossible it is to imagine this comically archaic law's existence in the 21st century, it continues to wreak havoc on the culture of New York City and the lives of all the workers who labor to create a massive local and tourist economy.

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Picture this: It's 11 o'clock on a typical Saturday night in a downtown New York nightclub. Patrons are checking their coats, talking, and ordering drinks. The DJ's already playing music, and a few dancers are on the floor. Suddenly the lights come on, the music stops, and the doors are closed. The police, the fire department, and the health department inspect the premises and ID the crowd.

The venue itself is a local institution with an "A" grade from the health department, a good relationship with its community board, and an international reputation for over a decade of distinctive parties with notable bands and DJs. Since the room isn't over-capacity, everyone's "of age," and there are no health or fire violations, the squad leaves and moves onto its next target. By the time it's all over, the room is empty, the business has lost money, and the staff is going home broke. To sweeten the deal, the city leaves a little present in the form of a ticket for dancing without a cabaret license. The litany of fines, which can range from $1,000 to $50,000, are a setback for any business. But the biggest fear is a second citation, which can lead to closure. This example isn't from the distant past, either—it occurred earlier this year at one of the venues I work with.

That same week a number of Downtown bars got hit with cabaret license violations, sending the entire Lower East Side nightlife economy into panic mode. I was asked to change all of my flyers and ads to exclude the words "dance party." We also had to tone down promotion, so as to not draw too much attention. Though I was, by every other standard, hosting a legitimate dance party in a legal venue, I was forced to operate outside of the law and live in fear. In essence, the 1926 law, universally regarded as illogical, unfair, and downright racist, had reared its old, dusty head once again, disrupting businesses, criminalizing dancing, and making us all worry about our livelihoods.

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The problem isn't just the absurd law; it's the fact that it's also nearly impossible to get a cabaret license. Everyone would have one if there were a shred of probability. But fewer than 10 percent of New York drinking establishments, according to a 2016 inquiry by Metro, have managed to reel in that white whale due to what anti-cabaret law activist Greg Miller called the "bureaucratic hoops" club owners have to jump through.

There is a dark irony to dancing being criminalized in a city that used to never sleep. We live in the birthplace of legendary and historically important venues like Roseland, Birdland, Savoy Ballroom, and Lenox Lounge; Smalls, Minton's, Cafe Society, the Copa, the Five Spot, the Gaslight, and the Peppermint Lounge; CBGB's, Studio 54, Paradise Garage, Mudd Club, and Max's Kansas City, Disco Fever, and the Roxy, and that Bay Ridge disco in Saturday Night Fever with the flashing lightboxes on the floor. The proud music and nightlife culture of New York City has changed the world and still brings visitors from all over to stare vacantly at the simulacrum known as Joey Ramone Place, which sits across from fashion boutiques, upscale eateries, and bank outposts, and wonder where it all went.

We forget we're in the burg where Charles Dickens witnessed Master Juba formulating tap dancing in an antebellum downtown dive in Five Points. No other city can lay claim to popularizing the castle walk, the Charleston, the Lindy hop, the jitterbug, the peppermint twist, salsa, disco, and breakdancing. Following the Charleston, which got off on the right foot in 1923, each one of these dances came to prominence in the wake of the cabaret law. In spite of dancing essentially being illegal, New York managed to become the dance capital of the world.

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After falling off of the turnip truck from Texas in the late 1990s, I'd walk down permissively cannabis-clouded downtown streets, past corner C & D dealers, and into a nightclub to find signs that said "NO DANCING." After Mayor Rudy Giuliani dug up the ancient decree in the 90s to coincide with his "Broken Windows" policing, some clubs were so scared that bouncers would walk over and stop patrons from breaking into any motion that resembled dancing. I was blown away when I found out it was OK for two people to dance, but adding a third partner would be breaking the law. This wasn't Elmore City, Oklahoma, but the capital of the world at the dawn of the 21st century. The pettiness made me feel sorry for this town for the very first time. I realized New York City isn't as progressive as it prides itself as being. I was sufficiently moved to pen a rock 'n' roll protest song entitled, "Illegal to Dance," which my band wasn't crazy about (I wound up shelving it after 9/11 because its prophetic final verse involved dancing on ruins). I can only hope that no recording of that one has survived.

But despite the legal issues, even in the world of a not-so-clubby rock 'n' roller/compulsive night-lifer like me, dancing was everywhere. Not only at big clubs, rock venues, and little bars, most of which were either licensed or didn't care either way, but at afterhours spots and warehouses. People like Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello and fine artisté Spencer Sweeney cropped up at an illegal afterhours I frequented called Ridge Street. One of the pre-hip(ster) Williamsburg hotspots, Kokies (the name needs no explanation), had a regular live salsa band, and the new, gentrifying customers, flush with super stepped-on 20s from the DJ window, could be found getting down with the regulars that—justifiably—viewed them with a mix of condescension and suspicion. In loft parties, officially licensed galleries, and warehouses from Downtown to Dumbo to Williamsburg to Bushwick to Long Island City, people in the underground night economy were shaking it all over town to all kinds of music. So while cabaret law may have driven out legitimate business, underground dancing and live music thrived in a shadow economy during the Giuliani era.

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A good chunk of the NYC-originated cultural products you currently enjoy, from disco to hip-hop, exist because they were born and bred outside of the law, in illegal underground subcultural environments. My early dance parties, from Soul Clap and Dance-Off on down, were transacted primarily in marginally legal underground art spaces and 100 percent illegal warehouses. The same can be said for the majority of the north Brooklyn music scene of the 2000s, where so many of the world's most notable bands actualized themselves amidst a vast array of long-gone DIY venues and the long treasure trail of alternative spaces briefly occupied by DIY impresario Todd P. Now that these centrally located spots where we did our thing have been torn down to make way for condos and offices, the kids have moved further out in all directions, and the surveillance economy makes the existence of clandestine alternative venues increasingly more difficult every year, it seems like as good a time as any to bring dancing into the legitimate economy.

Witnessing the cabaret law conversation pop up and disappear with the frequency of a McRib over the last couple of decades, my elation is a bit dulled by the déjà vu that brings me back to Bloomberg's opposition to the law and subsequent inability to kill it, and the whimper that was implicit in his lack of practical solutions for its replacement. While I've never heard a valid argument in favor of retaining the law, there seems to be no shortage of powerful interests including community boards and the licensed clubs who want to keep it on the books. But, despite my eternal skepticism, this time I feel like there's more public enthusiasm, I see more press about it, and I've witnessed a more organized resistance than ever before from the Dance Liberation Network and their ilk. Maybe common sense will finally prevail and this 90-year-old Godzilla will be slain for good.

As for establishing the new Office of Nightlife, I'm all for it. I think because nightlife has such a strong historical association with organized crime, is transacted on alcohol sales, and exists outside of normal working hours, it's been difficult to present it as a proper industry. But for tens of thousands of New Yorkers, it's our occupation, and having our places of work closed down and raided, having our livelihoods hanging in the balance, is a big deal. An official municipal office wouldn't just add legitimacy to what we do, it could also act in our often-ignored interests as an official liaison between the worlds of night and day.

Furthermore, a public office could help balance the disproportionate power of moneyed interests of boutique hotels, cocktail lounges, and mega clubs. If we've learned anything from our own history, it's that few valuable cultural byproducts come from the marbled crypts where they wind up. Nightlife and music culture are bottom-up. An official government office could look out for alternative spaces and new spots that foster quality music and culture before they have commercial value. Right now, it's too difficult for them to survive, and both local music and nightlife are suffering as a result.

Finally, as for the question of who should be the city's first Night Mayor, I'd like to nominate the only New Yorker I know of with the experience of making dancing legal: Kevin Bacon. I don't personally know how to contact him, but I'm sure we all know someone who knows someone…

Keep up with Jonathan Toubin on New York Night Train's website and Facebook.