Dancing and Protesting in the Streets

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"Dancing is not a crime!" New Yorkers screamed on the park side of 5th Avenue and East 79th Street on a Saturday afternoon. About 200 people of all ages and ethnicities moved their bodies to the rhythm of a percussion band, expressing themselves through the most primal art form in human history. They gathered at this designated spot to show they are entitled to the right to dance whenever, wherever and with whomever they want. Is this a scene from the civil rights movement? No, it happened on July 22, 2006. In a city known for its tolerance and freedom of expression, it is hard to believe that dancing is against the law. But it is a crime to dance in bars and restaurants that don’t have a cabaret license.  

The NYC cabaret law was created in 1926 in an effort to curtail wild behavior in nightclubs, particularly the interracial mixing that was happening in jazz clubs. The law initially limited licenses to establishments serving food or drink featuring three or more musicians or three or more people “moving in synchronized fashion.” It also stipulated that only musicians “of good character” could be licensed to play. In 1961 the law was amended to restrict cabarets to manufacturing and commercial zones, and in 1967 the “good character” musician requirement was nixed. In the late ’80s, the courts declared the three-musician rule unconstitutional. Although musicians have won the battle, dancers are still fighting to repeal the law. Today, only 244 licensed cabarets exist.  

A group called Metropolis in Motion planned Saturday’s open-air dance event to raise public awareness about the cabaret law and support its repeal. Their website states, “As the only city in the nation with cabaret license requirements, the law is an infringement of our constitutional right to freedom of expression…we hope that our efforts will build support for court appeals challenging the constitutionality of the law.”

The founders of this recently formed grassroots organization wore T-shirts branded with their motto: Dancing is not a crime. Carrying clipboards, they mingled through the dancing crowd, getting people to join their mailing list. Although the salsa band cancelled due to threatening weather conditions, dancers were not discouraged. The rain held up for two hours while the beating of drums inspired all sorts of movement, from free-style to ballet. Women in long colorful dresses practiced swing moves next to a guy grooving in rollerblades. Circus characters mixed with club kids.  

The dancers paused only to listen to the speakers. Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has been fighting the cabaret law for seven years. He rallied the crowd with catchy statements like, “This is unacceptable! This must change now!” “They ain’t got rhythm folks!” and, of course, “Dancing is not a crime!” According to Siegel, the cabaret law symbolizes the repressive, anti-fun climate permeating the city. He told the crowd, “If you allow a government to tell people they cannot dance, that is the beginning of a repressive government. With all that’s going on in the world, we need to encourage dancing…we might find ourselves recognizing we’ve got more in common than we’d like to believe.”

In 2005, Siegel acted as co-counsel with attorney Paul Chevigny to bring the issue to court. They filed a lawsuit on behalf of New York City dancers, contending that dance is a basic form of human expression and therefore deserves protection under the First Amendment of the New York State constitution. New York State Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman dismissed the case this year, but Chevigny and Siegel plan to appeal in the fall. According to Chevigny, “What it comes down to is various community boards hate dancing.”

But it’s not that they actually hate dancing; they hate the crowds, noise and “immoral” implications traditionally associated with dancing. Although noise is an argument used by supporters of the cabaret law to justify its continuing existence, they ignore the fact that there are separate laws to take care of noise. The real problem appears to be noise generated by traffic and people in the street. Restaurant owner Matthew Holt attests, “Noise has nothing to do with dancing…it’s guilt by association [because the police] cannot give tickets to cabbies for honking their horns.” Holt invests a lot of energy and money into maintaining order on the sidewalk in front of his business, but laments that, when people step half a block away, it becomes difficult if not impossible to monitor them.    

Even so, noise complaints were the drive behind Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s “Quality of Life” campaign, when he used the cabaret law to fine or close unlicensed venues that allowed people to dance. In 2003, City Council member Alan Gerson introduced cabaret law reform.  Mayor Bloomberg proposed replacing the cabaret license with a more general nightlife license, but he dropped the proposal after receiving criticism from the New York Nightlife Association (NYNA). 

Although Bloomberg appears to support cabaret law reform, protesters say that it has obviously not been a priority in the past two years. The licensed clubs continue to profit, while smaller unlicensed venues suffer from systematic violations rooted in an absurd, anachronistic law. 

Holt agrees,“The big clubs like [the cabaret law] cause it keeps their monopoly on dancing. The community boards like it for it’s good ammunition for the people who complain about noise. The police precinct commanders like it because they can shut down clubs and advance themselves politically and say they are doing their jobs. And the city likes it because it generates income from fines.”

After Siegel stepped down from the platform, a representative of Alan J. Gerson stood up and spoke for the city council member. He said that regulating the freedom to dance is, “…very un-American, [dancing] doesn’t create the problems that concern the city.” After his speech, he cried, “We don’t live in some silly Kevin Bacon/John Lithgow movie, so let’s dance!” The crowd screamed and the drums started again. For the third time that afternoon, a NYC sightseeing bus drove by. The dancers waved and screamed at the tourists who returned the enthusiasm, probably having no idea that they won’t be able to dance at approximately 4,700 New York establishments with liquor licenses.  

Coney Island High, Baby Jupiter, Hogs & Heifers, Vain, Rivertown Lounge, No Moore, Swing 46, Knitting Factory and Lakeside Lounge are just a few of the places that have been fined or closed for illegal dancing.        

Holt worries about the future of his restaurant. “I think about all those people we’re killing abroad in the name of freedom, and then see a small group of Americans protesting in New York for their God given right to dance and I’m greatly saddened. I mean, please, we’re one of the only cities in the world with this law.” n

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