Leaping and dancing before the law: Activists revive push to scrap Cabaret Law

Just dance! Here’s where you can shake it in Brooklyn this summer
Photo by Lauren Fleishman

There is a time to mourn and a time to dance — there was a time for this law, but not anymore!

The city must scrap its “Footloose”-esque law that prohibits dancing in licensed venues unless they have a hard-to-get permit, hundreds of locals are demanding in a new petition, arguing that the archaic ordinance could lead revelers to shake their money makers in dangerous underground venues.

“New Yorkers are going to dance no matter what,” said Bushwick resident Nikki Brown, a leader from activist group the Dance Liberation Network, which launched an online petition that has amassed more than 2,000 signatures in one week. “If you kick them out of a safe, regulated space based only on the absence of a cabaret license, they will be forced into less and less safe spaces.”

The controversial Cabaret Law has required venues to have a special license for rug-cutting since 1926 during Prohibition — although some historians believe it was really a way to target black jazz clubs — and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani revived it to put nightclubs out of business in the 1990s.

Now the activists say officials are cracking down again — although they refused to give any details of venues that have been fined, and the Police Department said it couldn’t specify how many have been hit for that specific infraction.

But a rep for the State Liquor Authority confirmed it happens pretty often — and inspectors who catch unsanctioned rug-cutting can fine the venues up to $3,000 for the first offense alone.

“It is a violation that we see frequently,” said spokesman William Crowley.

And yet obtaining a cabaret licenses is notoriously difficult, the activists claim — the application requires venues to install pricey digital video surveillance systems and for owners to prove they don’t owe any child support, amongst other requirements.

As of 2016, just 118 of the city’s 25,100 licensed venues actually have the permit, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Party people and venue owners have been demanding the city scrap the law for decades — most famously during the “Million Mambo March” in 2000, where protestors danced in a Manhattan park — but after a fire at an illegal warehouse party in Oakland killed 36 people last year, the dance enthusiasts say they redoubled their efforts to make sure folks have legal and safe places to cut loose.

“The Oakland tragedy was a wake up call for the community, and the catalyst for us to start taking a hard look at the ways that city policy threatens the creative community,” said John Barclay, who owns popular Bushwick club Bossa Nova Civic Club.

The group is hosting a meeting on Thursday at Bushwick’s Market Hotel, and the Department of Cultural Affairs’ commissioner will be in attendance, according to Barclay.

But it is ultimately up to Council members to repeal the law, and one would first need to put forth legislation to annul it.

No pols have voiced their support for the repeal yet, although reps for Speaker Mark-Viverito, Councilman Menchaca (D–Sunset Park) and Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D–Bushwick) said they will review the petition and consider the implications of dissolving the law on businesses and communities.

The last time pols got close to repealing the law was in 2008, when the Bloomberg administration wanted to scrap the ordinance and require venues to get a nightlife license instead.

Learn more about the law and voice your opinion at the Market Hotel [1140 Myrtle Ave. at Broadway in Bushwick, www.danceliberationetwork.com]. March 30 at 7 pm.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill