Today’s “Footloose”: Push for repeal of cabaret law



The Half King bar in Chelsea. Photo: Lindsay Cayne.

City Council and the Dance Liberation Network, a non-profit organization, are pushing for the repeal of the historic cabaret law, while Manhattan’s Community Board 5 wants to keep it in place.

The relevance of the controversial 1926 law, which prohibits dancing without a special cabaret license, was debated at CB5’s full board meeting on September 14. The community board believes that it keeps neighborhood noise to a minimum, while opponents question its usefulness and how it’s enforced.

The law requires a venue to have a cabaret license if three or more people are to dance at the location. But fewer than 100 venues in all five boroughs have a cabaret license and the law is inconsistently enforced, said Erika Tannor, New York City Council’s director of communications.

If venues are caught without a license, Tannor said, police can levy fines or shut them down. But there are thousands of businesses in the city that allow dancing without the license, and the law “is used to shut down a place arbitrarily,” she said.

Nicole Brenecki, an organizer for DLN and record label owner who lives in Brooklyn, attended the meeting and said that the law is selectively applied, claiming that police can target venues unfairly. “If they don’t like you, they’re going to enforce it against you,” she said, charging that officers don’t often issue citations for bar owners with large and lucrative businesses. She sees no relevance to a law that historically was used to discourage interracial fraternization in speakeasies.

Clayton Smith, a vice chair for CB5, said the cabaret law has come under scrutiny recently because someone friendly with a city council member who supports repeal wanted to open a nightlife operation.

Smith said that a CB5 representative testified before city council about its concerns if the law is repealed. “We would no longer have the ability to engage with applicants and bad actors in our district the way that we have for many years,” he said.

Brenecki said that she attended a recent hearing where a spokesperson from the mayor’s office said that Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the repeal but wants a surveillance requirement for nightclubs put in place, which would be overseen by the Department of Consumer Affairs. The mayor’s office could not be reached for comment. Brenecki noted that surveillance cameras are already in place for these venues for insurance and safety measures.

“There still would be a lot of mechanisms to enforce these things that they are concerned about, such as safety and noise levels,” said Brenecki in response to CB5’s objections. “It’s just they feel like they can say who can do what and when and everything, so this is a little too much.”

Adam Gross, a bartender at the West Side Tavern in Chelsea, which does not have a cabaret license, said he has lived in this area for 40 years and has never seen the law enforced. “I can’t even believe that’s a law, it’s so ridiculous,” he said.

Albert Redner, general manager of The Half King, another Chelsea bar, said that although the law has never been enforced at his bar, he recalled a crackdown in the late 90s at a bar that he used to frequent that was popular with members of the gay and black communities.

“I remember going there with my friends and being told, ‘You can’t dance here,’ and I thought it was the most absurd thing ever,” said Redner. “With dancing that’s all up to interpretation, many things can be considered dancing, and we shouldn’t leave it up to one person to decide.”

Musicians, activists, and small business owners came together to found DLN in an effort to protest the cabaret law after the city threatened to take away the liquor license of a bar owner in Bushwick, because he did not have the license. When DLN discovered that city councilman Rafael Espinal was in the process of drafting repeal legislation, they joined forces.

The bill is set to have an internal vote from the Department of Consumer Affairs, then a full city council vote and, Brenecki hopes, a signature from the mayor by the end of the year.