The year was 2003, and Dominique Keegan, owner of the beloved Alphabet City dance hotspot Plant Bar, had a plan. According to a New York Times report from that year, Keegan had devised a clever system to keep his club safe from city inspectors attempting to enforce the Cabaret Law, a Prohibition-era regulation which prohibits dancing in any business without a so-called cabaret license. Keegan instructed his bouncers to flip a switch if city inspectors appeared; the switch activated a blue light in the DJ booth, a signal for the DJ to put on Radiohead’s album Kid A. The gloomy record, Keegan hoped, would put the kibosh on dancing and spare him a costly ticket.
But one night, a DJ missed the cue and the bar received a citation for “16 people dancing.” Then it got another ticket, and the city padlocked Plant Bar’s doors. Keegan was informed that in order to reopen, he had to replace DJs with a jukebox and prevent any further dancing. At the time, the Bloomberg administration was considering repealing the Cabaret Law. Keegan told the Times that if that were to happen it would be “music to my ears, if you’ll forgive the pun.”
Fast forward to 2017: Plant Bar is history and Bloomberg is a private citizen, yet the Cabaret Law remains on the books. “No dancing” signs can be found on the walls of establishments across the city, and small venue owners live in fear of the onerous tickets they can receive if their patrons shimmy, grind, or sway.
Instituted under Prohibition in 1926, the law has been used to regulate many different types of venues over the years. One constant, critics allege, is that the law has been disproportionately enforced against venues that cater to people of color and the LGBTQ community.
Not for long, though, if a coalition of activists, nightlife professionals, and city councilmembers get their way. Political momentum has been building around the latest effort to repeal the law, which has survived many such previous attempts. Legendary promoter David Mancuso spoke out against the law as early as the 70s, and in 2000, activists protested the Giuliani administration’s strict enforcement of the law with the “Million Mambo March,” in which protesters danced from Tompkins Square Park to Washington Square Park.
On June 19th, 2017 a group of activists, politicians, business owners, and dancers gathered on the steps of city hall. They were there for a press conference, because later that day councilman Rafael Espinal—chair of the committee on Consumer Affairs—would be conducting the first-ever city council oversight hearing on the Cabaret Law, a formal step required for Espinal to introduce legislation to repeal it. Epinal represents District 37, which includes large swaths of Bushwick and Williamsburg, and has more intimate connections to club culture than you might expect from someone who works in City Hall. Standing behind the podium, Espinal cleared his voice and addressed the gathered crowd of reporters and cameramen.
“Nightlife cannot be brought out of the dark, but it can be brought out of the shadows,” he said. “After nearly two years of advocating on this issue with New Yorker’s from all corners of NYC, I am proud to officially introduce this bill to repeal the racist and outdated cabaret law.”
Despite Espinal’s commitment to dance culture, it’s unlikely that the repeal effort would have evolved so far without the Dance Liberation Network. The DLN was formed earlier this year in the wake of the Ghost Ship Fire, which spurred a group of dancers and nightlife professionals active in the Brooklyn scene to take action against the Cabaret Law. People like Hutchinson and John Barclay, who founded Bossa Nova Civic Club, worry that squelching legitimate venues through Cabaret violations will drive dancers to less-safe underground parties, in addition to reducing the number of legit spaces available to people from marginalized communities. By raising awareness and collecting signatures for a petition calling for repeal, they’ve been able to draw increasing public attention to an otherwise arcane legislative effort.
So, what happens now? Below, read on for our explainer on what the cabaret law is, how it came to be, and what needs to happen for it to be repealed.
What is the Cabaret Law?
The Cabaret Law prohibits dancing by more than three people in any NYC “room, place or space” that sells food or drinks, unless that space has a cabaret license. It was initially introduced in 1926, with the intent of helping police regulate speakeasies during Prohibition. While various amendments have been made to the bill over the years, the core regulation has survived: in 2017, it’s still illegal for more than three people to dance in an any unlicensed NYC space.
Why are people trying to overturn it?
One major reason is the law’s prejudicial history. A piece on THUMP charting the law’s evolution over the decades described it as representing a “secret history” of nightlife in New York, one which has often reflected the suppression of black, brown, and queer musicians and scenes. When the law came into being in the 1920s, it was used as a vehicle for targeting Harlem jazz clubs, which primarily catered to an African-American audience.
In 1943, the government added a new amendment mandating that NYC musicians obtain a so-called “cabaret card” in order to perform, which required that they undergo fingerprinting and questioning by the NYPD. Black jazz musicians were deeply affected by these regulations. “My right to pursue my chosen profession has been taken away, and my wife and three children who are innocent of any wrongdoing are suffering,” wrote Charlie Parker in a letter to the New York State Liquor Authority after his card was revoked over a heroin charge.
Many other jazz legends—including Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday—also had their cards suspended, usually due to drugs. The law was finally repealed in 1967, following some lawsuits and a telegram from Frank Sinatra to a City Council Member critiquing the “demeaning requirements that New York has imposed on entertainers.”
In the 60s, another amendment targeting jazz musicians was adding to the law. Known as the Three Musicians rule, it banned groups of more than three musicians from playing in a venue without a cabaret license. The law also restricted unlicensed venues from hosting any musicians playing instruments associated with jazz, like the saxophone, while making an exception for “not more than three persons playing piano, organ, accordion, or guitar or any stringed instrument.” A judge deemed these restrictions unconstitutional in 1988, but for decades, they obstructed jazz musicians trying to practice their craft.
The most recent substantive change came in 2006, when, in response to two separate murders of young women who’d visited Manhattan venues the night of their death, requirements for extensive security camera systems covering exits were added to the law. “It smacks of Big Brother,” said William K. Dobbs, a longtime gay activist, in an interview with the Times. “It will have an impact on everybody who enjoys New York nightlife.”
At various points in time, different aspects of the cabaret law have been enforced in different ways. In the 90s, after a decades-long period in which the law was only loosely enforced, Mayor Giuliani revived the ban as a way to crack down on the city’s thriving clubs as part of his “broken windows” theory of policing.
In an essay for THUMP, Michael Musto described how the mayor “demonized nightlife as our city’s bastard child in order to make things safe for tourists and co-op owners.” Musto noted that venues catering to non-white and queer clientele often became targets for Giuliani; he spoke with NYC nightlife icon Penny Arcade, who described how “One Avenue A bar that was a cafe during the day and a gay bar at night was fined thousands of dollars for people swaying to the music!”
Besides historical prejudice, is the law still a problem for venues?
Appearing on the THUMP podcast, venue owners Rachel Nelson and John Barclay—who run Happyfun Hideaway and Bossa Nova Civic Club, respectively—described the difficulties their business’ have faced due to the Cabaret Law.
“You live in fear,” explained Nelson. “It’s two o’clock in the morning, a song comes on that everybody likes. People want to dance. You live in fear as a person who runs a space that all of the sudden someone’s going to start having fun, and they’re going to dance. Then all the sudden, you’ve got a violation on your hands just because people are expressing themselves.”
According to Barclay, the NYPD, the FDNY, and MARCH taskforces—inter-agency squads that specialize in fining venues deemed to be trouble spots—can tactically issue Cabaret law violations as a means of targeting venues for other reasons.
“If they don’t like you because you’re loud, it’s a lot easier for them to shut you down with the cabaret violation because dancing is explicitly illegal,” Barclay noted. “With the cabaret law, they can shut down any establishment they want.”
Nelson pointed out that the Cabaret Law offers enforcement agencies a convenient way to find violations and issue fines. Other types of violations can be disputed in court, but with the cabaret license, she explained, “they can walk in and say, ‘This person is dancing. Stop everybody. Turn the music off. Turn the lights on.’ It’s used as a mechanism to gain entry and a way to alienate people in a way that’s really, really easy. It doesn’t require that much work.”
Nelson also believes that the Cabaret law still has the potential to be used prejudicially. “It happens to a lot of DIY or places that are hard for the traditional bureaucracy to understand, so it might be LGBTQ, it might be Latino, it might be black,” she said. “It might be some strange mixture of artists and weirdos that aren’t doing things normally.”
In an interview with Gothamist, Olympia Kazi of the NYC Artists Coalition claimed that the law “is being enforced in an arbitrary manner that ends up discriminating,” adding, “The venues that we’ve been talking to, the DIY venues, they told us, ‘If we have rock and roll, nobody will show up [to enforce the law]. If we have hip hop, where likely we are going to have African-American music, the NYPD tend to go in.'”
How many business currently have cabaret licenses?
According to City Hall, currently 97 establishments, out of more than 25,000 in New York City, have a cabaret license. That means that almost everyone dancing in New York on any given night is doing so illegally.
Why are they so difficult to get?
Barclay pointed out that if you were to take a cursory look at the requirements for getting the license, it would not seem to be particularly tough or costly. The application fee ranges from $300 to $1,000, depending on venue capacity. In practice, though, acquiring one is impossible in some cases and prohibitively expensive in others, due to obscure zoning rules and the extensive waiting periods needed for various government agency sign-offs.
“The big issue is that they did some retroactive zoning legislation or something that was introduced a couple decades after the law was put in place, which says it has to be in a Use Group 12,” Barclay explained, referring to districts that are zoned for commercial manufacturing. “The issue with that is that almost no establishments in NYC are in Use Group 12,” meaning that it’s “literally impossible to acquire a cabaret license for the vast majority of places.”
Per Barclay, even businesses that are do happen to be in Use Group 12 have to traverse “quite the web of bureaucratic hell” in order to receive a license. This includes receiving feedback from community boards—notorious for treating nightlife as a nuisance—and sign-offs from multiple departments, in addition to installing expensive surveillance cameras. (You can read the list of requirements here).
Barclay estimated that getting all of these things in order can at least 18 months—during which time venue owners still have to pay commercial rent while they wait for their licenses to be approved. The end result, according to Barclay, is that only very well financed corporate venues can afford to apply for a license. “They spend a ton of money to get that money back,” he explained. “They cater to a very financed people. Rich, European tourists. It’s not for average New Yorkers.”
What needs to happen for the repeal effort to be successful?
Espinal has introduced a bill calling for the repeal, co-sponsored by council members Antonio Reynoso and Steven Levin. The bill needs to go through two separate votes before it can become law. First, the legislation must be approved by a majority of the five-person committee of Consumer Affairs, of which he’s the chairman.
Asked about the status of this effort, Espinal said, “We started the conversations. I haven’t spoken to every member, but one member, Karen Koslowitz from Queens, has shown support for the repeal. I think that’s very encouraging. She represents neighborhoods in Queens that I thought would be concerned with repealing the law, and to see that she’s on board sends a signal to the rest of the council that this initiative is worth looking at.”
If the bill makes it out of committee, it moves to the general floor of the Council, where all 51 members will have the opportunity to vote on it. If it receives a simple majority of 26 votes, then it moves to De Blasio’s desk. If he vetoes it, then it can be overturned by a two-thirds majority.
Why might some people be against the repeal?
At the oversight hearing, Community Board 3 member Susan Stetzer—who represents parts of Chinatown, the East Village, and the Lower East Side—expressed skepticism about the repeal on the grounds that it could mean increased friction between nightlife establishments and residents in some neighborhoods.
“Economic growth is always good, but putting businesses and residents in conflict is not good,” she explained. “Some people want to party till 4am and that’s fine, as long as residents, and especially children, can sleep. The issue is we need balance.”
As for other members of the city council, Espinal expects that some will need to be convinced. “They’re concerned about their quality of life being impeded on by night venues, and the noise that it might draw into the neighborhoods,” he explained. “You have members who are very sensitive to that idea and those concerns. They’re the ones that are going to mostly be the ones we’re going to have to talk to and persuade, showing them and telling them why it’s a good idea.”
Espinal pointed out that despite these reservations, so far no groups—including councilmembers or community boards—have come out publicly against the repeal effort.
What does the mayor’s office have to say about it?
At the oversight hearing, Espinal pressed a representative from DeBlasio administration—Lindsay Greene, a senior advisor for the Office of Housing and Economic Development—to give an opinion on the repeal effort. When he brought up the law’s racist history and asked if such legislation was appropriate to keep on the books, Greene equivocated. “We are aware of the historical issues of the law and its enforcement, but this administration has not taken those approaches under Mayor DeBlasio,” she said. She declined to state how many violations the city had issued during his tenure.
The City is currently defending a lawsuit from local business owner Andrew Muchmore, who owns the Williamsburg venue Muchmore’s. He received a citation in 2013 for “swaying” in his establishment, and sued the city. “There is no protected First Amendment right of expression to engage in recreational dancing,” city lawyers argued in a June 2015 filing.
At the oversight hearing, Councilmember Steven Levin pointed out to Greene that if the city didn’t support the Cabaret Law, it wouldn’t defend the suit against it. “The administration is currently defending the lawsuit in court,” Greene responded. While she would not answer any more questions regarding the city’s stance on the law—citing the lawsuit—Greene did mention that there are “ongoing conversations” about the law in the mayor’s office.
On our podcast, Espinal said that he believes the mayor’s office is being cautious about taking any public stance at this point in the conversation, but thinks they are open to repeal. “They’re concerned about jobs; they’re concerned about the venues in our city, and the jobs they create,” he said. “To a degree, I think that they are open and will look to see how they can find a common ground so we can move forward.”
How can I get involved in the repeal effort?
The easiest and most effective way, said Espinal, is to call your local councilmember. Dance Liberation Network has put together a helpful map on their website showing the names and phone numbers of the councilmember for each district.
“I don’t expect this to be easy,” noted Espinal on the podcast. Still, he said he believes that support from concerned citizens “is going to make the job a lot easier. We’re going to be reaching out to all my colleagues, and making sure they understand why this is an important step to take. “