Update 11/1/2017: The New York City Council has voted to repeal the Cabaret Law. Once the law is signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, which is expected to happen next month and will include stipulations for security and surveillance cameras at larger clubs, bars and restaurants in New York will no longer need to obtain a license to permit social dancing in their establishment. The push for repeal was led by New York City Councilmember Rafael Espinal and an umbrella group of artists, promoters and bar owners called Let NYC Dance. It will end a 91-year-old law that advocates often compared to the movie Footloose.
New York City's Cabaret Law outlaws dancing inside any establishment that does not have a cabaret license. Out of the 25,000 bars and restaurants in New York, about 100 actually have one, effectively making dancing illegal in almost all of the city that never sleeps.
The law was passed in 1926, a prohibition-era tool for the city to go after mostly-black jazz clubs during the Harlem Renaissance. The language of the law has been amended over time, but in its original form it specifically banned instruments that jazz musicians tended to play, like brass, wind and percussion, while allowing instruments like strings, keyboards and disco sound systems. More recently, it was used by the Giuliani administration in the 1990s to shut down gay bars.
"Laws historically used to oppress people should have no place in this city and society in general," said Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson of the Dance Liberation Network.
Olympia Kazi of the NYC Artist Coalition said the law is still being used in a discriminatory manner.
"Several DIY venues said that when they have shows that they know are going to attract communities of color, NYPD shows up," she said. "Hip-Hop music, NYPD will be there. We do not want this cabaret law to be a tool that can be used to discriminate or to intimidate. We're all for safety, and we're all for people respecting the rules, but all the people need to be respecting the same rules based on the rules, and not based on, 'oh, I don't like their skin color, their sexual orientation, or the kind of music they listen to.'"
Rafael Espinal is a 33-year-old New York City Councilmember who chairs the Consumer Affairs Committee, which oversees the agency responsible for enforcing the Cabaret Law. He represents neighborhoods in Brooklyn that are home to both communities of color and growing artist communities. Today, Espinal is leading the fight to repeal what he calls "New York City's archaic, racist, and homophobic Cabaret Law."
"It's very personal to me as someone who is probably more of an introvert than an extrovert," Espinal said. "I felt that the nightlife scene kind of gave me a space where I was able to feel a little more comfortable. Maybe because I had one or two beers. Maybe because I was around a lot of like-minded individuals. But it really was a place where I spent a lot of my time because I was able to interact with a lot of folks."
"What makes New York City so great is that we have all these spaces where you can spend your time at," he continued. "If we get in the way of those places being able to grow and flourish, then New York City, I think in a few years wouldn't be a place where a lot of folks would want to move into."
On June 19 the New York City Council Consumer Affairs Committee hosted a public hearing on the Cabaret Law. At the hearing, representatives from Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration said the law was no longer used in a discriminatory manner, but instead is being used to ensure the safety of people who go out in New York. In order for an establishment to obtain a cabaret license, they must meet certain requirements like proof of an electrical inspection, a video surveillance camera certification and security employee background checks.
"We definitely agree that we should not be using laws for any discriminatory purposes and we don't intend with anything that we do to go after any particular people, and the administration particularly at the mayor's direction has made a real effort to reduce burden on small business owners regardless of their identity or background," said Lindsay Greene, senior adviser to the deputy mayor for housing and economic development.
De Blasio's office declined an interview with Circa.
On June 21, Espinal introduced a bill to the New York City Council to repeal the Cabaret Law. It is expected that the council will start considering the bill in the fall.
In addition to the legislation, there is also a federal case that has been brought against the City of New York by Andrew Muchmore, a bar owner in Brooklyn.
"My lawsuit focuses on the First Amendment, and the equal protection clause, the 14th Amendment," Muchmore said. "Our First amendment argument is twofold. One is that social dancing itself should be recognized as protected First Amendment protection. The secondary argument is that even if social dancers do not themselves have protected First Amendment rights, the musicians and performers at a live entertainment establishment clearly do. If the effect of the Cabaret Law is that venues can not host entire genres of music, and have to obtain an almost impossible to obtain license, this represents a prior restraint on protected First Amendment speech."
As New Yorkers and the city's visitors wait to see how the legislation and lawsuit plays out, dancing will continue to be illegal in the vast majority of New York City establishments.
Given the plot parallels to "Footloose," Circa discussed the Cabaret Law with the 1984 hit's star, Kevin Bacon.
Circa: Could you give us a quick recap of what the plot of 'Footloose'?
Kevin Bacon: I play a kid who comes to a small town, and he's from big city, from Chicago. He moves to this town with his mom, his mom's going to start a new life. The town has banned public dancing. There's a powerful administer who has decided that based on the fact that kids seem to be wild, they're teenagers, and the town seems to be going wild in his opinion. I think there was an accident years ago that involved drinking, and a kid was killed. They've banned public dancing. I am a kid that really likes to dance and grew up in a more urban setting. I think this is crazy, and I try to organize a high school dance. It's a story about a rebellious teen standing up against authority and demanding that him and his friends have the ability to shake that body. This is kind of challenging for me because I haven't probably seen the movie since it came out.
In general, do you think that people should be allowed to dance?
Of all the things that we could think of banning, or limiting, or controlling, that seems like the one that is the least harmful. I mean, I feel like making music and dancing is one of those things that rarely anybody gets hurt doing either one of those. As far as I'm concerned, if nobody's getting hurt, it's a beautiful thing. I remember as a kid, I grew up in Philadelphia, and went to urban public schools. We would have dances, and we grew up dancing like crazy.
What do you think about the fact that New York City, specifically, has a law like that on the books?
I think that it's kind of shocking. I suppose that whenever you hear something like this, and you go, "How could that be possible?" I'm also interested to hear what the arguments are for it.
I think the general argument that the city has given is that it keeps people safe, that in order to apply for the license itself, you've got to show your building's up to code. You basically have to go and deal with all the different agencies.
I think when it comes to buildings being up to code, we've seen recently, and in the past, some tragedies happen when they put too many people in a building, or they're not fire-safe or whatever. I think that should be standard operating procedure for anybody that has a business basically, especially if they're going to get a lot of people in there, serving food, alcohol, et cetera. But people dancing, and the specific nature of dancing seems, I don't know...
What do you like about dancing?
I think it's cathartic. I find that for myself, there's rhythm in my body all the time, all day long. I'm constantly, constantly, feeling rhythm and feeling beats. Even when there's no music playing, the rhythm of the street, or of my steps, or my breathing, it's always there. I think if there's an imposed rhythm, which is what music does, an imposed rhythm on you, you may not be 100 percent in cadence with your heartbeat or your steps and with your breathing, you then have the opportunity to throw yourself into that rhythm and let it take you, and lead you, and to me, that's what's great about it. I love to dance to the point of sweating, and using your body in that kind of way and the enjoyment you get, and the history, and the emotional connection that you have to use it.
Music is transformative. It can shift through culture, thoughts and emotions all through the rhythms of a drum or the notes on a guitar. For an Arab-American living in New York, the love of music came from the sounds of hardcore punk, and his life ultimately changed because of it.