Those attending bars and clubs in NYC can soon collectively shake their hips without fear, as a bill repealing the Prohibition-era cabaret law is slated to pass the City Council tomorrow. The repeal marks a win for the coalition of individuals and advocacy groups like the Dance Liberation Network and NYC Artist Coalition who have spent many months attending hearings, making calls, and staging town halls in their quest to make a ban on social dancing a thing of the past.
Implemented in 1926, the cabaret law requires all spaces offering social dancing to possess a cabaret license. However, a tiny fraction of bars and clubs have actually been able to obtain this license, leaving nightlife venues from big clubs to small DIY spaces vulnerable to being penalized at essentially any time. Critics of the law, like Frankie Hutchinson of Discwoman, have also articulated the racist origins of the law, said to be selectively enforced and historically used to stifle interracial dancing and performances by black jazz musicians.
This is not the first time attempts have been made to eliminate the law. Andrew Muchmore, an attorney who owns the Williamsburg venue Muchmore’s, filed a lawsuit against the city in 2014, citing the law was in conflict with the First and 14th Amendments. Muchmore has since been involved with recent town halls and hearings concerning the law.
Julia Sinelnikova, a multimedia artist, curator, and community organizer who testified at both hearings on the repeal law, said she was excited to see its end. “In an era of bigotry, I think NYC City Council members see the obvious necessity of standing strong against racist and discriminatory policies, which have been historically aided by the Cabaret Law.” She told Bedford + Bowery that this repeal is proof that “talking to your neighbors works.”
The repeal bill, currently sporting 24 cosponsors, was introduced by Council Member Rafael Espinal, Jr. of District 37, which includes areas of Bushwick, East New York, Brownsville, and Cypress Hills. Espinal has been a major player in advocating for nightlife and DIY spaces in the city, sponsoring both the cabaret law repeal and the bill to establish an Office of Nightlife and “Night Mayor,” which was signed into law last month. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment will oversee the Office of Nightlife, which will act as a mediator between nightlife spaces, residents, and the local government.
“Today NYC will right a historical wrong,” said Espinal. “It’s over for the cabaret law. For almost a century, the cabaret law has targeted specific groups, kept businesses and performers in fear, and stifled the expression of NYC’s vital culture. I am proud to champion this historic repeal, which will support our nightlife businesses while maintaining the much-needed safety measures we already have in place.”
The actual bill, which has already been publicly supported by the Mayor’s Office, will repeal the requirement of a cabaret license for dancing while also retaining measures like requiring security cameras and licensed security guards.
The Dance Parade, a public dance event created in part to raise awareness about the cabaret law, was one of the groups regularly advocating for the law’s repeal. A press release from the parade’s organizers states that the event will continue as scheduled this coming May; this year’s “Cabaret of Life” theme will be a celebratory one.
The bill will be formally voted on by City Council tomorrow at 1:30 pm, followed by a press conference on the steps of City Hall at 3 pm.