Brooklyn Boro

There are only 17 places in Brooklyn where you can legally dance

May 12, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
New York City has only 88 venues where people can legally dance thanks to an antiquated and draconian New York City law known as the “Cabaret Law.” Several groups and local councilmembers are fighting for New Yorkers’ right to dance, calling for the law to be repealed. Photo by Mark Cole

When Friday arrives, there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind: the weekend.

Like many people worldwide, Brooklynites choose to celebrate their two-day vacation at their favorite watering hole with a cool beverage in hand, moving and grooving to a thumping bassline.

Dancing, after all, is an expression; it’s a way to bring people together and a reminder of the power that music has to unite in the wake of chaos.

On sweaty dancefloors across the borough, people dance to forget, dance to celebrate and dance to remind themselves of what is important in life.

But as it turns out, dancing is illegal in the majority of New York City venues.

Yes, you read that right — if one chooses to let loose in all but 17 Brooklyn venues, the establishment could theoretically be shut down or fined, as has been the case on numerous occasions.

And for the City That Never Sleeps, New York has a surprisingly low number of legal dancefloors — 88 to be exact — thanks to an archaic rule called the “Cabaret Law.”

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The law says that people can only dance in venues that possess a Cabaret License, but these certificates are extremely difficult to obtain.

The law, which was created in 1926, prohibits dancing by three or more people in any “room, place or space in the city,” to which the public may gain admission and includes “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form[s] of amusement.”

According to NYC Artist Coalition, an organization that “[protects] community spaces,” the law was created and used to break up underground black institutions at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

“Created in 1926 with racist and discriminatory intent, the Cabaret Law has been systematically used as a conservative strategy to decimate cultural life,” the group writes on its website. “During the 1920s and ’30s, it targeted African-American jazz establishments and was used to halt interracial dancing.

“In the ’90s, it was redeployed by Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani against New York City’s thriving nightlife culture and to target gay and lesbian bars. It is nearly impossible to receive a Cabaret License due to a combination of constraints and onerous zoning requirements.”

Using data from the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, NYC Artist Coalition created a map identifying every venue in the entire city that possesses a cabaret license.

So the question remains, where is it legal to dance in Brooklyn? Practically nowhere.

In fact, the map shows that only 17 Brooklyn venues can legally have people dancing inside. Only 88 establishments in the five boroughs have the license.

North Brooklyn holds 36 percent or six out of the 17 licenses for Brooklyn. The only venues where one can legally dance in that portion of the borough are at Rough Trade, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Studio 299 and Mama Bella Restaurant.

The diagram reveals that there is not a single venue where one can dance legally in the entire neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Even venues that advertise as nightclubs and routinely host DJs do not have cabaret licenses, which is why patrons often find tables strewn about the room as a way of discouraging dancing.

“From the cobblestoned streets of the Meatpacking District to the warehouses of Bushwick, NYC’s nightlife scene should be accessible, fun, and safe for everyone,” city Councilmember Rafael Espinal told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“When I was in my early 20s, I remember stumbling upon a DIY venue and having a memorable time enjoying live music and art displays alongside many Brooklynites. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have a cabaret license, but all of the building safety codes were being followed. Later that night, it was shut down.”

Several institutions have surfaced to help fight this law. One group called the Dance Liberation Network has created a petition asking for the repeal of the law.

“We believe the Cabaret Law criminalizes the act of dancing without providing meaningful additional safety or quality of life measures,” the petition states. “This law doesn’t belong in our city and we are asking our government to repeal it immediately.”

At press time the petition had 3,511 supporters.

Dance Liberation Network and NYC Artist Coalition held an event on March 30 at the Market Hotel in Bushwick to introduce their “Let NYC Dance” campaign.  

Attendees at the meeting included Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Espinal and more than 300 residents.

On Thursday, Dance Liberation Network and Boiler Room — a company that routinely hosts the world’s top DJs and live-streams its events — hosted a party at House of Yes in Bushwick.

New York’s homegrown DJs performed all-night as a way to celebrate the city’s dance heritage and to raise awareness about the Let NYC Dance movement.

“Looking back, I don’t see why the law should get in the way of similar artistic entertainment venues,” Espinal told the Eagle. “It’s a shame that event spaces similar to that one have to undergo so much scrutiny and cut through so much red tape to exist.

“We are losing great recreational spaces like Bushwick’s Shea Stadium because of it. It is time NYC rethinks the archaic and broad Cabaret Law and brings our regulations into the 21st century so that all businesses are treated equally and all communities are safe to express themselves.”

 

To find out more about Let NYC Dance, go to nycartc.com or danceliberationnetwork.com.

 

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