The 91-year-old Cabaret Law prohibits dancing in most of the city’s venues, and unfairly targets marginalised communities
The Cabaret Law dates back to the Prohibition era and makes it illegal to host events involving dancers or dancing without a specific license. Since its introduction in 1926, the law has been a source of frustration amongst the city’s music scenes and nightlife industries. The licenses are hard to obtain, with less than 0.1% of bars and restaurants in New York City having one.
Critics having long claimed that it discriminates against African-American, Latin, and other ethnic minority communities, targeting jazz clubs and preventing singers like Billie Holiday and Ray Charles from performing in the city. For a long period, any venue hosting more than three musicians was shut down.
Furthermore, the law is seen as giving police an easy excuse to enter a nightclub, often resulting in massive fines for venue owners who are seen to be violating any codes. Additionally it has made it hard for vital spaces like queer clubs to exist, and has been claimed to push dance music and rave culture further underground and into potentially unsade and unregulated venues.
New York City Council member Rafael Espinal introduced a bill to repeal the law in September. Following its first hearing, the bill will come before the City Council on Tuesday (October 31), and Espinal says he has the 26 votes necessary to pass it.
This comes after a long, long period of campaigning by groups such as the NYC Artist Coalition and Dance Liberation Network, who earlier this year met with the city’s cultural commissioner Tom Finkelpearl to discuss what could be done to protect New York’s dance spaces.
There have been many previous attempts to repeal the law, none of which have been successful. Although the law isn’t enforced as heavily today, different city administrations have taken a different tack – former mayor Rudy Guiliani cracked down heavily on the city’s nightlife, immortalised by !!! (one of the most underrated bands to emerge from NYC in the 2000s) on their track “Me and Giuliani Down the Schoolyard”, which explored how the scene was still dealing with the Guiliani legacy. Listen to that below.