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Real Life ‘Footloose’? NYC Has Its Own ‘No Dancing’ Law

By: Renee Grant

When you think of New York City, you probably think of posh clubs and wild nightlife, dancing the night away. What most don’t know is that the city has had a “No Dancing” law on the books for the last century. It brings to mind the small town from 1984’s classic film Footloose rather than The City That Never Sleeps.

“Ecclesiastes assures us… that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to laugh… and a time to weep. A time to mourn… and there is a time to dance,” Ren McCormack, played by our hometown hero Kevin Bacon, says in the film. “And there was a time for this law, but not anymore. See, this is our time to dance. It is our way of celebrating life. It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.”

It seems residents of New York feel the same way.

The Cabaret law on the books bans dancing in any establishment without a Cabaret License. It was enacted in 1926 with the intent of shutting down African American jazz clubs in Harlem. The original law banned not only dancing, but jazz instruments as well. It prohibited more than three musicians from playing at a time in unlicensed clubs.

In the 40’s, the law was expanded to artists, requiring them to possess a “Cabaret Card” to perform inside of clubs and bars. To get the card, musicians had to be fingerprinted by the police department, photographed, and interrogated about their personal lives.  Cards had to be renewed every two years, and authorities could revoke or deny cards at any time for any reason. African American artists were targeted most, with icons like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis all having had their cards revoked.

While most of the additions to the law have been repealed due to the history of the laws being rooted in racism, but the law itself still remains on the books. Now, the Dance Liberation Group (DLG) is working to change that, hoping to have the law repealed for good.

A petition from DLG is being circulated on Change.org stating, “We are asking the New York City Council to repeal the Cabaret Law and lift this ban on dancing. It’s hard to believe that our city government has a law on the books banning an act of expression as basic and universal as dancing–it sounds like the behavior of a repressive regime and certainly has no place in a city as tolerant, diverse, and respectful of human expression as ours is. This law doesn’t belong in our city and we are asking our government to repeal it immediately. Let’s take one more step towards becoming the progressive cultural capital all New Yorkers can believe in.”

Cabaret Licenses are notoriously hard to get, out of NYC’s 25,000 bars and clubs, only 118 have the licenses. If you’ve danced in a bar or club in the city, chances are you’ve broken the law. And the definition of dancing is subjective, some establishments have even been fined for allowing patrons to simply sway to the music.

So far, the petition has 3,674 supporters at the time of this article’s publication.

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