let nyc dance: activists are trying to repeal this racist nightlife law

New York's Cabaret Law was created during the Roaring Twenties specifically to crack down on black jazz clubs.

by Hannah Ongley
22 March 2017, 7:27pm


The United States is full of bizarre and obsolete laws, but some of New York's are particularly nonsensical. In one of the most liberal states in America, it's technically illegal to: hold a puppet show in your apartment window, wear slippers after 10pm, and walk around on Sundays with an ice cream in your back pocket. It's also illegal for three or more people to dance inside an establishment that does not hold a cabaret license. If you've tried to obtain such a license at any point over the last few years/decades, you'll have found it's pretty much impossible. However, this outdated regulation isn't just very silly. It's also very racist.

The Cabaret Law was created in 1926 specifically to crack down on black jazz clubs, which were disproportionately affected by more than just the arbitrarily enforced "no dancing" rule. The law also limited permitted instruments to strings, keyboards, and electric soundsystems, effectively making traditional jazz instruments illegal. It also imposed restrictions on the number (three) of musicians who can play at once, though this section has now been repealed. Thump writes that the Cabaret Law's "use by the authorities to enforce institutional racism and classism has become a sort of secret history of New York nightlife." As recently as the late 90s, it was used as a devastating weapon against unlicensed clubs by Rudy Giuliani as part of the then-mayor's crackdown on "quality of life" crime. 

These days, Giuliani is copping more heat for his prejudice against the Muslim community, but the Cabaret Law remains on the books. Dance Liberation Network and NYC Artist Coalition have now announced an event called Let NYC Dance, which will take place at Brooklyn's Market Hotel on March 30. DLN has also created a petition to pressure lawmakers to repeal 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."

Sign the petition here, and if you're nearby, head to Market Hotel next Thursday for a Town Hall meeting to oppose the antiquated regulation. The only ridiculous law that should still be plaguing New Yorkers in 2017 is not being to buy wine with your groceries.


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Facebook

New York
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Let NYC Dance