Photo by Meron Menghistab

The Repeal of New York's Racist Anti-Dancing Law Was a Dance Party

On Tuesday, the New York City Council voted to repeal the Cabaret Law from 1925, and the scene outside of City Hall was one of jubilation

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Nov 1 2017, 3:03pm

Photo by Meron Menghistab

Sporting a tiger-striped suit, peacock feathers, and black leggings, Mahayana Landowne, a longtime arts activist, called it "a miracle": the day that New York City finally moved to repeal a rule on the books that, critics say, has been restraining nightlife in Gotham since 1925.

With 25 sponsors, a majority of New York City Council voted on Tuesday to repeal the Cabaret Law, an age-old rule initially designed to crack down on speakeasies and jazz clubs during the Prohibition. As the years went on, the law's application morphed to match the times: in the 1940s and 50s, performers were required to carry cabaret cards, which could be revoked or denied for a multitude of reasons. Black artists were disproportionately affected by the policing of the portion of the law—even legends like Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk had their cards revoked at various points, severely hampering their ability to legally perform and earn money in the city. Then, in the 90s, the burgeoning techno scene became a target.

"It's a 91-year-old law that has been used arbitrarily to target marginalized communities across the city," said Councilman Rafael Espinal, who introduced the bill, on the steps of City Hall. "But today, we can finally say that it's over."

"Let's party!" someone from the crowd behind him yelled out.

After the vote, a crowd of some 30 artists and organizers celebrated in the only way that really made sense: gyrating to music in front of the local government's headquarters that abided by it for so long. They flashed signs that read "Legalize Dance," while one activist sang a moving tribute to a friend who died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last year. The vote's accidental fate of landing on Halloween was almost too perfect, giving attendees reason to dress in fashion.

At times, the tone was grandiose, with several speakers showcasing the law's repeal as saying something much larger. "In the Trump Era, this is a message not only in New York, but in America: you don't give up. It's good to be smart, but stamina is equally and perhaps more important. You have to outlast your opponent," said Norman Siegel, the former New York Civil Liberties Union head, who filed a suit against the law ten years ago. "New York deserves to be the dance capital of the world!"

In the Giuliani years of the 90s, the law served as a basis for "broken windows"-style policing of nightlife spots deemed "nuisances." One member in the crowd cradled a photo from that time; it featured a man wearing a red "Mayor's Social Club Inspection Task Force" jacket, in the middle of the club once known as Baseline. Stories of club owners telling everyone to be quiet, or playing slower music to calm crowds, were told.

Out of the city's nearly 25,000 spots that could be considered "nightlife establishments," only 97 have proper cabaret licenses, according to The New York Times. Getting one, advocates say, is cost-prohibitive and lengthy; a bureaucratic obstacle that few want to jump. Although not enforced in years, Councilman Espinal said the Cabaret Law's mere existence has created an environment of vigilance and annoyance for club owners and artists in neighborhoods like Bushwick, which he represents.

"I've played at a number of clubs and bars that had to temporarily be shut down because they didn't have a cabaret license," Jake Reif, a Brooklyn-based DJ and producer, told me before the press conference. "It affects everyone's bottom line."

Giuliani's successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, tried repeatedly to repeal the law, only to fall flat through negotiations. Landowne, a founding member of Dance Parade, an organization that has long assailed the law, said she remembers the protests in front of the mayor's apartment, in the early 2000s. "So many people know about it now," she said. "Nobody did then."

This day and age did, however, feel different. Under the current administration, the city has given out relatively few violations under the law. Its mayor, Bill de Blasio, said he'd sign the bill immediately, and has been more vocal on the issue lately, scoring a victory amongst the community here with the creation of an 'Office of Nightlife'—and a soon-to-be-crowned "nightlife mayor"—a few months back.

However, advocates said the Cabaret Law's repeal was just the beginning; they'd be eyeing the mayor's choice for nightlife mayor closely, and start discussing other steps forward. "There are still largely unenforced anti-dancing technicalities on the books, within city zoning and the State Liquor Authority, that can be dusted off, and used against us," said John Barclay, the owner of the Bossa Nova Civic Club, in Bushwick, which, reportedly, does not have a cabaret license.

Tuesday's press conference more so harped on the fact that New York—a city seemingly synonymous with cultural nonchalance—still even had a no-dancing law like this in place. But as advocates cheered on the law's repeal, for many it sounded as if they were coming home to a city once again theirs; one that didn't fall prey, as it often does, to the powerful forces of gentrification, or corporate control.

This was a city that, again, they could dance in. "It gives me hope in this city, that people can have freedom of expression," said Landowne. "New York needs that."