New York City Cabaret Law: You Can’t Dance If You Want To

NYC’s antiquated cabaret law isn’t making nightlife any safer or more fun, just more exclusionary and expensive.

Helen is 26. She is a menswear designer at a globally recognizable brand. But come Friday night, she leaves her Manhattan office for an abandoned warehouse in Bushwick for some illicit activity…

Dancing.

That’s right. Dancing. Weed is practically legal in California. You can no longer get arrested for drinking in the streets of New York City. It would seem that in many cities, lawmakers are waking up to miracles of decriminalization and the injustices of the penal code. But since 1926, New York City’s cabaret law has banned dancing in groups of three or more in venues without a cabaret license. And like many nonsensical and seemingly arbitrary laws, this one is steeped in institutionalized racism and prejudice.

Helen NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

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“The level of commitment me and my friends have to nightlife is like a career in and of itself,” explains Helen, for whom dance, music and nightlife provides an escape from the pressures of her career. But you won’t find Helen getting turnt over bottle service on 27th street. Helen’s scene is strictly Brooklyn-based and underground, or as she calls it, “DIY.” Despite living in what some regard as one of the most liberal and culturally dynamic cities of the world, Helen contends that New Yorkers “actually live in a quite conservative society. [The city] has become homogenized and normal. You go to the Lower East Side and it’s all brunch and eggs and avocado toast. At these [underground] parties and in these spaces, you can dress however you want to dress, look however you want to look, engage the way you want to engage, and it’s a safe space.”

Helen NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

Helen is also a self-acclaimed “sober partier,” which is ironic since the cabaret law was originally an instrument of Prohibition, making it easier for police to crackdown on clubs illegally serving alcohol. By the 1950s, it became a weapon against the Jazz community and its predominantly black audience and musicians. And while it is rarely enforced nowadays, this law has continued legitimize attacks on the subcultures of NYC nightlife throughout the decades, and it has yet to be repealed– some organizations like the Dance Liberation Network and NYC Artist Coalition are trying to change.

Helen NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

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“I’ve gone out in Manhattan, and I think the biggest difference is that it’s exclusionary,” says Helen (and probably anyone who’s gone toe-to-toe with an NYC doorman with a chip on his shoulder). “If you go to space like Up & Down, no one is dancing. That’s what you’re paying money to go into: this ‘nightclub’ where everyone is drinking and standing,” she explains. Indeed, traditional NYC nightlife is oddly antisocial compared to the underground dance scene, which is sustained more by common and sincere passions for dance and music, than anything else. The community element of underground nightlife cannot be understated. Helen admits that nearly all her friends are people she met at these underground dance parties.

Dream has been living in New York City for 11 years. A transwoman, she is somewhat of Jacqueline-of-all-trades. “I’m a writer–I freelance in a couple different places– I’m a DJ, I used to produce parties. So you know, I’m an artist,” says Dream.

Dream NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

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According to Dream, “[underground] nightlife has a legacy of fostering the queer community.” However, she also recognized that for many, this scene was inaccessible. “There’s this ongoing myth that New York is dead, but a lot of times, it’s really that people don’t know where to go,” she explains. So she and a friend founded a collective called Culture Whore, and for the next four years, they threw underground parties before getting shut down for not having a liquor license.

Dream NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

While Dream no longer throws parties, she still hosts them at established venues like Lady Fag. However, she is convinced that the cabaret law and laws like it “are meant to restrict people who are already marginalized,” namely those who identify as queer. “[Nightlife] is the way [queer people] connect, and it’s sort of a cathartic thing that we use to get through the fact that we are marginalized and suppressed,” she explains.

Andrew is a Nigerian national who got his degree in civil engineering. He moved to New York from Lagos in the summer of 2010. For Andrew, immigrating to the United States gave him access to something many Americans take for granted: the Internet. “In Nigeria, there’s no WiFi or anything. When I came here, I got a desktop computer at home. I had nothing to do, so I jumped on the computer and got on some music blogs and that was it.” And so began Andrew’s love affair with electronic music, a genre relatively unknown in Nigeria. “I couldn’t wait to digest it all,” he says gleefully.

Andrew NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

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Andrew recalls his first dubstep concert at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey. “I had the time of my life in there,” he says. Andrew followed the electronic music scene to New York City and Brooklyn, and hasn’t stopped since. “I’d jump on a bus every weekend to concerts, warehouse parties….that was all I looked forward to every weekend”

Andrew prides himself on creating a party space that is safe for women

Outside of his career in construction management, Andrew’s life revolves around music. He started his own blog and SoundCloud, before promoting his own dance party series called Groovy Groovy. “No one wants to party until 4 am. The party only starts at 3 am, “ Andrew says. He points out most legal spaces don’t stay open until noon the next day, which is typically when underground parties tend to wind down. “Dance parties don’t happen in 4hours; it’s more than just a rush in and get out exercise. It’s more of a spiritual gathering. The rave is so essential because it serves as an escape from the fucking reality of this very fucked up world we live in” he says.

Andrew NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

But Groovy Groovy is about more than dancing your ass off. Andrew prides himself on creating a party space that is safe for women in ways that traditional nightlife venues and culture are decidedly not. “I’ll say the cabaret law targets women and queer people,” he argues. “Club culture right now is very disgusting; I would never put my family [there]. There’s always some creep in the club that’s on a mission to ruin your night. Their purpose of going out is [to] go get some girls,” he goes on.

New York’s underground nightlife and dance scenes provide a welcome respite from commercial club culture

The way Andrew sees it, women and queer people are the primary victims of club culture, which largely centers around men trying to “show how their machoness.” He also notes that “in clubs, security are usually looking for the tiniest reason to kick people out of clubs instead of protecting possible victims from predators. Their priorities are very messed up [people].” However, at Groovy Groovy, Andrew makes women–their safety and comfortability–a priority. My team members go out of our way to keep our eyes peeled on the dance floor. Even in our mailouts, we let [our guests] know that. Watch out for your friends, and if you see anyone disrupting the space, come to us and we’ll handle the situation accordingly,” he says.

Andrew NYC's Cabaret No Dancing Law Luis Nieto Dickens

© Luis Nieto Dickens/HEREYOUARE

For anyone who has tried and failed to get into an allegedly prestigious NYC nightclub, or those who have succeeded only to find a bunch of Instagram models taking selfies in between lines of blow, and a bottle list more expensive for than your rent, you know that this environment is anything but safe and often far from fun. New York’s underground nightlife and dance scenes provide a welcome respite from commercial club culture. And it’s culture that always has been the root of the cabaret law controversy, as it ultimately serves to subjugate cultures and communities that do not fall in line with the mainstream.

To sign the Dance Liberation Network petition, please go to Let NYC Dance: Repeal NYC’s Cabaret (No Dancing) Law Now.

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Update: New York City Council Passes Bill To Implement An “Office Of Nightlife” (September 19, 2017)

Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed legislation to create the Office of Nightlife.

The office and the soon-to-be-hired ‘Nightlife Mayor’ will serve as a central point of contact between City agencies, the nightlife industry, and city residents, promoting a safe and vibrant nightlife scene beneficial to businesses and residents across the five boroughs. The bill signing took place at House of Yes, a performance arts venue in Bushwick.

“Nightlife is part of the soul of our city. The musicians, artists and entrepreneurs that make up this community are crucial not only to our culture, but our economy,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “I am thrilled to launch our new Office of Nightlife which will help coordinate the businesses, communities and City agencies to help New York City’s nightlife industry prosper safely and ensure it works for all New Yorkers.”

Update: Repeal of the New York City Cabaret Law (October 31, 2017)

New York City Council passed Let NYC Dance Bill on October 31, 2017. “Today NYC will right a historical wrong,” said Council Member Rafael 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.” (source: New York City Council.)

Pictures Luis Nieto Dickens

Julia Reiss is a Los Angeles-born writer and humorist alive and mostly well in New York City.
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