In the beginning, there was Jack, and Jack had a groove. And from this groove came the groove of all grooves. And while one day viciously throwing down on his box, Jack boldy declared, "Let there be HOUSE!" and house music was born.
So goes Chuck Roberts' classic and oft-sampled house music monologue, but about 54 years before Jack got a chance to create house music, the New York City council tried to stomp it, or any other type of music one could conceivably dance to, out of existence in the city. Since 1926, the New York books have carried a set of statutes known as the Cabaret Law that have technically made it illegal for people to dance in the vast majority of the city's bars and clubs. Seriously. In some instances venues have been fined because multiple people were spotted merely swaying. Only venues with proper licensing can legally host dancing while also serving food and drink, but because of an onerous application process it's estimated that just 97 venues in the entire city has their papers in order. To put that in perspective, the city has at least 250 distinct neighborhoods depending on how you slice and dice it.
Well, after 91 long years of the city council holding a position that is officially more square than John Lithgow's Reverend character in Footloose, things may finally change. According to the New York Times, Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal says he now has the 26 votes needed to support a repeal of the ban. The shift comes of years of grassroots activism and evidence that the law has been applied in racially biased ways. Though some basic security requirements written into the law will stay in place, the draconian dancing restrictions are on the way out.
The law was first passed during the Prohibition era when cities across America started passing all sorts of inane laws to patrol the existence of speakeasies. New York's may have been originally targeted at flappers and the burgeoning Harlem jazz scene, but in practice was widely enforced across the city. Of course, when Prohibition was repealed, the law was only occasionally enforced and some changes were made throughout the years. Though, you could have excused most New Yorkers from even knowing the law was on the books until Rudy Giuliani came into the mayoral office and revived mass enforcement of the law as part of his quality of life campaign (the same campaign that gave us, indirectly at least, such popular things as Stop and Frisk and a Times Square that now includes Guy Fieri restaurants).
Mayors Bloomberg and De Blasio have been chiller about enforcement. Enforcement has been rare in recent years, but the law has still shaped the city's nightlife. The club industry is notoriously fickle and the red tape that accumulates while trying to get a permit may scare off some potential nightlife club kings, while underground and DIY venues have flourished in places like Bushwick and Ridgewood in recent years.
“When we stop people from dancing, they go straight to these warehouses,” John Barclay, and owner of an un-permitted Brooklyn nightclub Bossa Nova Civic Club, told the Times. “People haven’t stopped dancing, they’re just dancing in these extremely unsafe, unregulated environments.”
The apparent repeal comes at a time when the city is taking a fresh look at how valuable its nightlife industry is to the city. New York will soon installs its first "night mayor," an appointed position meant to be a clearinghouse for policy that affects activities after dark with an emphasis on relations with clubs, bars and music venues.
The continued existence of the kind of anti-dancing laws has also been a source of embarrassment for a city that is supposed to be America's cultural capital. How exactly is a city supposed to be cool when it has dancing laws that could easily have been written by Mike Pence?
Karl Lagerfeld - The New Mix: