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For a city that considers itself the capital of nightlife, New York has held on to some unusually stringent laws around dancing — but that may soon change. Plans are underway to repeal the last remnants of the city’s antiquated Cabaret Law. A trio of officials — council members Keith Powers and Mark Levine and Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams — proposed a zoning resolution last week that would finally “let New Yorkers break it down without breaking the law,” as Adams put it. 

Legal dance moves at Speakeasy at Bond45. Photo: Phil O’Brien

The issue dates back to Prohibition times in 1926, when New York City enacted the Cabaret Law to regulate bars and clubs. It prohibited “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form of amusement” in any public space selling food and drinks, unless they held a cabaret license. Unlicensed bars weren’t even allowed to play music until 1936, when an amendment was made for radio and piano-playing. Currently, there are only 104 “cabaret licenses” throughout the five boroughs. 

After several failed legal challenges, strides were made in 2017 when the Council passed legislation put forward by Council Member Rafael Espinal to partially repeal the Cabaret Law and establish the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife (ONL) as a liaison between nightlife operators and city agencies. The new law made it so that venues are no longer subject to fines, but left language in the zoning code that continues to limit recreational dancing to “Use Group 12” (or, industrial) spaces. 

Historically, these restrictions had a disproportionate impact on Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ communities. Under the pretext of preserving quality of life, their enforcement subjected jazz venues and gay bars to police raids, heightened surveillance and discrimination. With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the hospitality and entertainment industries particularly hard, revisiting these regulations is also essential in giving every business the chance to recover. 

“We can’t let outdated regulations hold back our economic recovery from COVID-19,” Adams said in a press release. “Our food and drink establishments have been hammered by the pandemic, and many are in dire financial straits. We took an important step in 2017 by repealing the Cabaret Law and combating years of discrimination against Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ New Yorkers. Now, we must change the remnants of the law in our City’s zoning code.”

Echoing these sentiments, the NYC Hospitality Alliance voiced their support for the resolution. “It’s ridiculous that in 2021 New York City still has rules on the books prohibiting people from dancing at their local restaurants and bars,” said Executive Director Andrew Rigie. 

“New York City is not Footloose’s tiny town, and there should be no place for remnants of a law aimed at barring racially integrated nightlife in 2021,” added Justin Harrison, senior policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Four years ago, the City Council did its part to repeal this outdated and anti-expression law, and now, the Department of City Planning must bring zoning restrictions over dancing and entertainment at bars and restaurants to an end. Dancing warrants First Amendment protections, and it’s past time for New York City to repeal the ‘Cabaret Law’ in both theory and practice.”

The zoning change was also one of the recommendations made in ONL’s inaugural Nightlife Advisory Board report. Other ideas included creating a New York Museum of Nightlife and a 24-hour nightlife pilot program in certain neighborhoods.

Jacqui Squatriglia and the dancing bartenders at Flaming Saddles in Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Jacqui Squatriglia, the owner of Flaming Saddles in Hell’s Kitchen which is famed for its dancing bartenders, told us: “NYC is the most vibrant city in the world! It represents freedom… We all deserve the freedom to dance… To me, dance equals happiness — and that is what we need more of… Let us dance, let us be free, and let us be happy… All and everybody! 5, 6, 7 and 8!”

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