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New York City Could Finally Lose Its Prohibition-era Dancing Rule

The infamous “Cabaret Law” is rooted in racism

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New York City residents and visitors: Ready your dancing shoes because more venues may soon be able to ply you with booze and snacks as you frolic, jig, pirouette, gyrate and get down. The infamous "Cabaret Law" could finally be on its last legs, reports Jane Lerner for NPR.

Under the current system, any public establishment where one can purchase food or drinks requires a Cabaret License if customers want to dance, according to the City of New York's website. But New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who just created an Office of Nightlife and Nightlife Advisory Board, seems poised to repeal the dusty law. "We feel there are better ways than the current law to create a strong nightlife economy that doesn't endanger those involved," Ben Sarle, deputy press secretary for Mayor de Blasio, tells NPR.  

C
hange has been a long time coming.

An editorial in The New York Times notes that cabaret licenses cropped up in 1926 in an effort to control Prohibition-era speakeasies. In 1961, an amendment to the rule allowed "incidental music" without a license, limiting musicians to just three in number and none that played drums, horn or woodwinds. Predictably with changing music styles, that led to confusion and creative interpretation. "The whole issue of licensing cabarets needs a fresh look," the editorial, which graced the pages of the Gray Lady in 1986, concluded.

However, a clearer-eyed look at the licensing and its founding tells a different story of why officials instituted it in the first place. The minutes from the Municipal Assembly of the City of New York make repeated references to the "wild" scene in night clubs and the "wild" people that attend them.

"It's widely understood that the Cabaret Law was written with the intent to impose control over black clubs in Harlem and impede miscegenation," Lerner writes for NPR. As originally put down, the law required that all cabaret workers "be fingerprinted, photographed and subjected to a background check," to get a cabaret card. Musicians who had their cards revoked included prominent black artists like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, J.J. Johnson and Jackie McLean, Nate Chinen wrote for the Jazz Times in 2012.  

Though Harlem's Jazz clubs were the original target, other marginalized communities fell under the law's often arbitrary-seeming enforcement. Most recently, Mayor Rudy Giuliani supervised efforts to fine and close unlicensed venues in the late 1990s as part of his "quality of life" campaign. "Giuliani's 1990s redeployment of the law was also fraught with race- and class-based discrimination—it was, and continues to be, particularly damaging for smaller Latin clubs above 59th Street," write Eli Kerry and Penn Bullock for Vice's Thump.

Today, nightlife professionals consider the license, responsible for the grouchy "NO DANCING" signs that scowl down at bar patrons, "absurd, antiquated, racist and extremely embarrassing for our city," in the words of Brooklyn nightclub owner John Barclay, who is also founder of the Dance Liberation Network, a group hoping to see the end of the law. 

Should it go off the books, the law will no longer be a tool that the city can use to "go after bad actors and bad businesses," as city council member Rafael Espinal tells Jake Offenhartz at The Gothamist. But that doesn't mean New York City is readying for a full-out Saturday Night Feverexisting zoning restrictions will likely keep dance venues limited, Lerner writes for NPR.

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