Until very recently, New York City’s “Cabaret Law” hung like a black cloud over the music and dance scene in one of the world’s most famously cultured cities. Though the law has been scarcely enforced since the early 1920s, it remained on the books until a group called the Dance Liberation Network petitioned successfully to have the law repealed on November 2nd, 2017. The law required that any “public dance hall” or “cabaret” have a license if music and dancing was permitting at the same time as selling food or drink to more than three people. This strange license also required that the establishments comply with strict security and surveillance requirements, leading only about 127 out of over 12,000 night clubs in New York City to actually register for licenses.
History of the “Cabaret Law”
The law was put into place during the Harlem Renaissance, an era when jazz music was flooding the city and public night clubs were picking up popularity. The government was interested in finding a way to continue to exercise control over large dance halls and speakeasies after the repeal of Prohibition. The initial legislation was intended to protect fire safety regulations and occupancy standards. However, the law was quickly modified and used to repress jazz musicians and pressure night club owners to comply with the licensing requirements or face penalties.
Many believe the specific regulation of jazz was racist in nature, as it targeted jazz culture and was frequently enforced against racially mixed clubs predominantly in the black neighborhood of Harlem. At one point, the law required performers to carry a “cabaret card” and get fingerprinted, identifying themselves as entertainers if they wished to perform at any venue. Because of vague wording, this imposition ended up extending as far as Broadway performers, as they would be singing in groups of more than three to large audiences. This requirement was repealed in 1967, after famous industry players such as Frank Sinatra began speaking out.
The “Cabaret Law” was once again brought into mainstream awareness in the 1990s, when NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani began his campaign to make New York’s nightlife safer as part of his overall effort to improve New York City’s “quality of life”. Authorities began to target venues that didn’t have the official cabaret license. While the restriction against jazz musicians in particular had been removed from the law in 1988, the prohibition against having more than three people dancing in an unlicensed establishment survived. This was done in an attempt to financially cripple the night clubs and their owners and force them to close down. While subsequent mayors have loosened the tight restrictions imposed by the law, it remained on the books until earlier this month.
Movement Towards Repeal
There have been many attempts over the decades to repeal the law. One lawyer creatively tried to argue that the law repressed dancer’s free speech rights. In recent years, the law has rarely been enforced, however one lawyer and bar owner has filed a still-pending lawsuit against the city after his bar was slapped with a fine under the law in 2013 when police, investigating a noise complaint, saw people “swaying” to a band. He claims the law infringed his free speech rights because he was prohibited from playing entire genres of music out of fear that people might start dancing. A strong argument made by many who opposed the law pointed to the fact that other laws exist now to regulate noise pollution and fire safety such that the “Cabaret Law” was no longer necessary, and currently serving no purpose other than to restrict people’s ability to dance in public spaces.
In March 2017, a collective called the Dance Liberation Network formed to fight this historically racist and culturally oppressive law. They teamed up with NYC Artist Coalition to host an event called “Let NYC Dance” to help raise awareness about the “Cabaret Law” and to encourage attendees to sign their petition to repeal the law. After seeing the widespread support in his district, Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn, introduced a bill to repeal. 25 councilmen signed on and the bill officially passed on October 31, 2017. According to Dance Liberation Network’s website, the law was formally taken off the books on November 2nd.
Many have celebrated this small victory as a step towards repealing historically oppressive legislation in a time where racial tensions are flaring across the country. Let NYC Dance Organizer Adam Snead said of the law when it was still in place, “If we cannot express ourselves through the simple, natural movement of dance, then how can we claim to truly be free?”
After 91 years, the residents of New York City are finally free to dance.
Nicole Garbe is a J.D. Candidate, 2019, at NYU School of Law.