Jacqui Gal

We Can Dance if We Want To

Protesters will boogie near house of mayor

Steps to stop no-dance law
Weekend, July 21-23, 2006

Protesters will boogie near house of mayor

By Jacqui Gal
Special to amNew York

New York is internationally renowned as the city that never sleeps, but visitors are surprised to learn that the Big Apple is not so hot on dancing. Of the thousands of city bars, clubs and restaurants, only 275 hold cabaret licenses. Move your hips in any of the others, and chances are the staff will ask you to stop, for fear of a fine.

This weekend, the new activist group Metropolis in Motion plans to protest the laws by convening a dance party around the corner from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side town house. “It’s about getting people to understand the whole bureaucratic mayhem that started in the 1920s,” said Greg Miller, a member of the group, which consists mostly of people with a dance background.

Established in 1926, the laws were introduced to limit the opportunities for jazz musicians to play in places where people of different races might mingle and dance. They sat largely unenforced until the the Giuliani administration used them in the quality-of-life crackdown.

Laws Reflect NYC in 1926

Norman Siegel on the disturbing origins of the cabaret regs:
“When you read some of the history, they talked about the rowdiness. People were expressing themselves in ways that the powers that be didn’t want them to, so they tried to restrict who can dance. There were also some concerns about the racial overtones and where what kinds of people were dancing.”

“One article uses the word ‘Orientals’ and describes how ‘Orientals and Caucasians’ were dancing together.”

One of the strongest advocates for change is former New York Civil Liberties Union chief Norman Siegel who, with NYU professor Paul Chevigny, is fighting to overturn the laws. After an April defeat in State Supreme Court, the group plans a September appeal, arguing the laws violate freedom of expression.

“Rather than deal with the real problem that was noise, [Giuliani] went after places that were not cabaret licensed. The Bloomberg administration is still making these quality-of-life arguments, but we should be using the noise regulations,” said Siegel, who is advising the group.

The Department of Consumer Affairs, which issues the licenses, sees them as a method of controlling entertainment venues. “The DCA works closely with city communities, and in conjunction with other city agencies, to use every tool at its disposal in addressing serious public safety and problem issues that may arise regarding cabarets,” said the agency’s Dina Improta Roskin.