New York City. The city that never sleeps. A place where you can get whatever you want and do whatever you want to do at any time of day. Except dance, that is.
Since 1926, NYC has been a no-dancing zone, at least as far as its bars are concerned. For the last 91 years, the Cabaret Law–a Prohibition-era statue that made dancing in bars illegal–has been on the books, preventing people from buying a drink and moving to the music, no matter how spontaneous.
It was illegal for any establishment to host “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form of amusement” without an official cabaret license. Sure, you could apply for one of these permits that allowed for drinking and dancing, but getting one was difficult and expensive, a journey that required navigating an approvals process involving several different agencies. At last count, only 97 of the 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in New York have such a thing.
One of the primary targets back in the 20s were the jazz clubs of Harlem, mixed-race hangouts of which authorities highly disapproved. It was even illegal to play a piano or even a radio in an unlicensed bar until 1936. Employees of licensed places were required to carry a “cabaret card” to show that they were allowed in such places. Anyone with a police record was denied being issued a card.
Or imagine going to see Ray Charles perform in an NYC bar in 1959. According to The Cabaret Act, you couldn’t even sway to the music as he jammed on “What’d I Say.” You were in a drinking establishment with music that had you dancing–well, under the law, it did. That would get you thrown out at best and at worst, arrested.
Actually, you wouldn’t have been able to see Ray perform in a bar in 1959. He had a criminal record for drugs so he was denied his cabaret card. Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker faced the same barriers. Even Frank Sinatra was pissed, refusing the indignity of being fingerprinted just so he could be issued a cabaret card. He refused to play NYC for years.
Midnight police raids were common. Bar owners had to keep the crowds from dancing, which often meant performers were barred from appearing and the playing of loud recorded music was discouraged.
But people gotta dance, right? With bars off-limits, dancers were pushed into warehouses and other unlicensed (and often unsafe) locations. (Side note: Makes you wonder if rap, hip-hop, house and EDM would have developed as they had if such clandestine parties had not been music fans’ only options.)
There have been plenty of attempts to repeal the stupid law, but opposition was surprisingly fierce. No only wanted their neighbourhood part to become a magnet for live or recorded music that prompted dancing.
Although enforcement of the Cabaret Act declined under the Giuliani administration (he did use it to squash a lot of dance clubs), the law remained on the books. There was even something known as the “three musician rule,” which could see a venue operator fined if an unlicensed place hosted more than three performers at the same time. Strangely, the law also stated that wind and percussion instruments were forbidden. Another shot against jazz players? And think of the effect that this emphasis on things like acoustic guitars had on the Greenwich Village folk scene.
Now, though, the Cabaret Law era seems to be coming to an end. Lawsuits and other legal challenges have come to a head and now a motion has been introduced to repeal the law. For the first time since the middle 20s, New Yorkers will be able to dance freely.
Read more at the New York Times.