The City Council is set to repeal New York’s “No Dancing” law today. Formally known as the “Cabaret Law,” the 1926 statute forbids dancing in bars without a cabaret license. The Law law is widely considered to be discriminatory since it was primarily used to police jazz clubs in Harlem during Prohibition, and has a broad history of violating New Yorkers’ civil liberties. According to the New York Times, music was not permitted in unlicensed bars at all until 1936, and from 1940-1967 the city required performers and employees in cabarets to be fingerprinted and cary “cabaret cards” which were denied to those with a police record. As a result, artists including Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Ray Charles could not work in New York. Frank Sinatra simply refused to sing in New York rather than be fingerprinted. The law showed its teeth again during the Giuliani Administration, when the city targeted gay bars and shut down clubs in response to ’90s rave culture.
Today, just 97 of New York’s 25,000 watering holes have cabaret licenses, which means that nearly all of the dancing that goes on in New York is illegal. Given that Mayor de Blasio established an Office of Nightlife on September 19th, and the city is on the hunt for its inaugural Night Mayor, City Hall is supportive of repeal.
De Blasio might be a high profile proponent of repeal, but the man who spearheaded the initiative is Brooklyn’s own Council Member Rafael Espinal who represents District 37, covering Bushwick, Brownsville, Cypress Hills and East New York. Espinal chairs the Consumer Affairs Committee, which oversees the agency that enforces the Cabaret Law. On June 21st, he introduced a bill to the City Council to repeal the Cabaret Law, which is expected to pass today. The repeal would make dancing legal, but sill enforce public safety measures including mandatory security cameras and security guards at larger venues, which are required under the existing law.
There was a groundswell of support for repeal in Bushwick and other parts of Brooklyn where the DIY music scene has flourished, and thereby attracted Cabaret crackdowns by the NYPD. Advocates from organizations like NYC Artist Coalition, Dance Liberation Network and Legalize Dance NYC have rallied around the call to #LetNYCDance. Venue owners here have challenged the city legally, too. Andrew Muchmore, who owns Muchmore’s (2 Havemeyer Street) in Williamsburg, sued the city in 2014 after Muchmore’s got hit with a Cabaret violation, because an NYPD officer saw people “swaying” at a rock show. Espinal and other advocates of repeal gathered at Muchmore’s on Friday to gear up for today’s vote.