On August 24, the City Council passed Council Member Rafael Espinal’s Office of Nightlife bill, which would establish a “night mayor” and nightlife task force to mediate between residents, the government, and the nightlife industry. This was good news for the city’s nightlife operators, particularly smaller DIY spaces that currently have to wade through a web of complicated regulations with little to no assistance or funding. However, the Nightlife Office on its own would not solve everything. Not when dancing still remains largely illegal in New York City.
In approximately the past year, a handful of organizations including the Dance Parade, NYC Artist Coalition, and Dance Liberation Network have been tirelessly organizing and advocating for the cabaret law to be repealed, a Prohibition-era statute which requires a difficult-to-obtain license to allow social dancing. It’s said less than 100 are in effect currently. In addition to his Office of Nightlife bill, Council Member Espinal has also introduced Intro 1652-A, legislation that would repeal the cabaret license requirement. The bill currently has 16 cosponsors. On Thursday, dozens testified on the issue to a packed courthouse.
In June, a similarly crowded hearing was held on a preliminary version of the Office of Nightlife bill and the issue of the cabaret law. Thursday’s hearing was not quite as filled to the brim, but still proved that the efforts to rid the nightlife industry of this requirement have been enduring. Not only that, but the future could be looking bright.
Lindsay Greene, Senior Advisor of Housing and Economic Development, testified at Thursday’s hearing and the hearing in June. As the city is currently embroiled in a lawsuit regarding the cabaret law brought on by attorney and venue owner Andrew Muchmore, Greene refrained from responding to most of the questions she was asked in June, citing pending legislation. This week, she was more talkative.
“The [de Blasio] administration strongly supports repealing the cabaret law,” she stated to the crowd. She added that this support was contingent on “retaining” existing security measures “in a manner that’s enforceable,” such as requiring surveillance cameras and licensed security guards. Espinal’s Intro 1652 currently includes both of those.
Greene went on to say that this repeal would ideally move the responsibility of enforcing these security measures from the Department of Consumer Affairs to the NYPD. Espinal cited worries from business owners that putting that responsibility in the hands of the NYPD would potentially lead to more issues similar to those the cabaret law repeal is trying to minimize.
Supporters of the cabaret law repeal were present in droves. Some were merely New Yorkers that loved dancing, others were business owners or DJs. Several people who testified in June did so again, including attorney Jerry Goldman, Discwoman and Dance Liberation Network’s Frankie Hutchinson, bar owners Rachel Nelson and John Barclay, Local 802’s Christopher Caroll, and House Coalition DJ Ali Coleman. All had differing stories and perspectives, but all of them passionately articulated that fully repealing the cabaret law was the only logical step forward.
New to the stand was Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of jazz great Duke Ellington. A trained dancer herself, she spoke at length about her family’s relationship with jazz clubs in New York and the importance of what these clubs inspired. “The freedom to explore and express through music and dance is our human responsibility. The current cabaret laws were designed to curtail and separate these things,” she said.
Ellington’s inclusion was no coincidence; the origins of the cabaret law can be traced back to a time when predominantly black jazz clubs were prevalent in areas like Harlem. Critics of the cabaret law, like Hutchinson, say it has racist origins aimed at preventing interracial mingling. Even today, places like Muchmore’s in Williamsburg say they must “censor” genres like hip-hop that might inspire dancing, which in turn often leads to less music by musicians of color.
It would seem difficult to find someone, aside from perhaps a grizzled old cartoon villain, that would be opposed to ending a ban on dancing in a big city. But the law in its current form, and how it fits into the larger network of nightlife requirements, is not quite that simple.
There were only a handful of people to testify with any criticism of Intro 1652, but they were there. One was from a man affiliated with Community Board 5 in Manhattan, who argued that they should “proceed cautiously” with repeals that may lessen the community board’s involvement in nightlife, since the board reviews applications for cabaret licenses. He also expressed a lack of confidence in the Office of Nightlife for similar reasons, though Espinal replied that it will not undermine community boards and is “designed to help everyone.”
The other critics came from the NYC Hospitality Alliance. The Alliance’s general and legislative counsel Robert Bookman said he’s been “at the forefront of this issue for literally 30 years,” working with people like Council Member Karen Koslowitz and founding organizations like the NY Nightlife Association, a precursor to the Hospitality Alliance.
“We support any bill that would increase the number of places that would offer dancing legally,” he said, but added that repealing the cabaret law would not accomplish this, citing zoning and other regulations that he says truly dictate where dancing can and cannot happen. He said the battle would be better fought over at the Department of City Planning.
“[Clubs] won’t need a license to dance,” Bookman said, “But they’ll still need everything else.”
Espinal and his supporters know this, and articulated in June’s hearing that one of the main arguments for a full repeal was because adequate safety measures exist elsewhere, and the repeal would prevent additional crackdowns on an already vulnerable nightlife industry. Even surveillance cameras and security guards, which would be required if the repeal bill passes, are typically required by commercial insurance providers already, said John Barclay, who has been involved in the industry for the past decade and has found contemporary enforcement of cabaret law violations “discriminatory to say the least.”
“A lot of the issues we’re talking about today to scare people have already been covered by existing laws,” added the Dance Parade’s executive director Greg Miller, who called arguments like Bookman’s “scare tactics.”
“All of us advocates are very aware of the zoning changes that need to be made and we are working on it one hundred percent,” Barclay said. “You can embarrass New Yorkers, you can injure them, and you can bankrupt them, but New York City will never stop dancing.”
A press release from Espinal’s office called the hearing “successful” and “one step in the right direction.”