New York City

Dance in Queens: New York City Will Repeal Prohibition Era Ban on Dancing in Bars

Strike up the band, play a song that everybody knows. A nonsensical, authoritarian law that was racist in both design and application finally gets the boot.


Underwood Archives/UIG Universal Images Group/Newscom

Kick off your Sunday shoes, New Yorkers. The city's decades-long, nonsensical ban on dancing is finally coming to an end.

The City Council voted Tuesday to kill the 91-year old "cabaret law" requiring bars to obtain a special permit involving a comically long checklist of approvals from more than a handful of different city agencies. Only 97 of New York City's more than 25,000 dining and drinking establishments have such a permit, according to The New York Times.

Mayor Bill Bill de Blasio support the repeal and is expected to sign the bill into law sometime later this month, the Post reports. Feels like a night for a party.

While the city has never enforced the law against couples who get swept away for a moment by chance, it has, at various times in its history, had bar owners living in fear, opponents of the law say.

The "cabaret card" appendage to the law once kept Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, and Ray Charles from performing in the country's biggest music venue. Charlie "Bird" Parker, a famed 1950s saxophonist, had his cabaret card revoked at the peak of his career for questionable conviction over possession of heroin. "My right to pursue my chosen profession has been taken away, and my wife and three children who are innocent of any wrongdoing are suffering," Parker wrote shortly after the experience, as Chris Kjorness detailed in a 2013 Reason story on the history of New York City's cabaret law.

"For almost a century, the cabaret law has targeted specific groups, kept businesses and performers in fear, and stifled the expression of NYC's vital culture," said Rafael Espinal, the heroic city councilman from Brooklyn who sponsored the repeal measure after others tried, and mostly failed, to kill the dancing ban for decades.

Weirdly, New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs granted cabaret permits only to establishments in parts of the city zoned for "commercial manufacturing." They required a fire department and electrical inspection. Permission had to be granted by a community board, which might include owners of competing bars and restaurants on the same city block or neighbors worried about loud music.

If you managed to get past that hurdle, you still needed a security background check and proof of working security cameras. The city's Department of Buildings needed to confirm "that your premises is suitable to operate your business." And, of course, you had to pay the mandatory licensing fee.

But not if you owed child support. You can dance if you want to. You can leave your friends behind. But if you didn't pay your child support you weren't going to get a cabaret permit in New York City.

New York City's ban on dancing wasn't just a silly, pointless and expensive violation of free expression. Its origins were blatantly racist. Like many broad but vague statues—see: "stop-and-frisk"—the cabaret law was disproportionately used to squeeze African Americans and other minorities.

The 1926 law was passed to "prevent interracial mingling" at Harlem bars, the New York Post reports. In his book Gigs: Jazz and the Cabaret Laws in New York City, New York University law professor Paul Chevigny notes that the Board of Alderman's Committee on Local Laws was pretty clear about the motivations for the ban:

"Well, there has been altogether too much 'running wild' in some of these night clubs and, in the judgment of your Committee, the 'wild' stranger and the foolish native should have the check-rein applied a little bit…Your Committee believes that these 'wild' people should not be tumbling out of these resorts at six or seven o'clock in the morning to the scandal and annoyance of decent residents on their way to daily employment."

Chevigny is one of several people to unsuccessfully challenge the cabaret law in court. "I don't think in this day and age we need dancing police," he told New York Magazine in 2005. "Let's get serious. Who cares if you dance."

New York City certainly has. For the first decade of the law's existence, it actually banned all music in bars. In 1936, it was updated to allow—gasp!—piano-playing in bars and restaurants. In 1943, the law was expanded to require musicians to carry a "cabaret card" if they wanted to perform in the city.

To get one, performers had to submit to being fingerprinted by the New York City Police Department and were "subjected to interrogations about their personal life—mostly focused on their potential drug use—before they could be certified as worthy and wholesome. Cards had to be renewed every two years, and the authorities were free to revoke or deny their renewal at will," as Vice detailed in a piece looking at the history of the cabaret law published earlier this year.

"What opportunities were stymied by the cabaret card?" Jazz Times asked in 2012. "How much sooner might Monk have found recognition, and what would the effect have been on his psyche? What if Miles Davis hadn't lost his card in 1959, after being clubbed outside of Birdland: Might he have found more work for his sextet, fresh off the release of Kind of Blue? Think of the reputations that moldered, the engagements that never came to pass."

Rather than submit to the city government's absurd licensing scheme, Frank Sinatra refused for decades to perform in New York. "I will not seek a cabaret card in New York because of the indignity of being fingerprinted, mugged and quizzed about my past," Sinatra reportedly said. His public opposition to the law helped loosen some of the requirements for performers, but the law stayed on the books "as a haphazard enforcement tool to keep bar owners in line at the city's whims," according to the New York Post.

Every church, ballet studio, and high school dance in New York City technically violated the cabaret law, Andrew Muchmore, a lawyer and bar owner from Brooklyn, pointed out in a 2014 lawsuit challenging the law as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

City officials have always liked the cabaret law because "it gives them a way to arbitrarily shut down places they have problems with," Muchmore told The Village Voice earlier this year. "I think it's just one more tool in their infinite tool box to cause problems for any place they want to cause problems for."