Dancers get down on cabaret law at marathon protest


By Randi Cecchine

Bob Holtzman remembers dancing in the 1940s and ’50s in New York City, when on any weekend night you could go ballroom or cha-cha dancing at a variety of hotels and clubs. A devotee of ballroom and swing, he sees dancing as a healthy way to bring people together and encourage community and self-actualization.

“The whole idea of dancing with a partner has to do with learning to accommodate oneself to someone else,” he said.

Two weekends ago, the 75-year-old Holtzman could be found schooling young people in Madison Square Park, within sight of the Flatiron Building. He wasn’t running a course, however. He was advocating to repeal what he and others view as the city’s outdated cabaret laws, as part of a 24-hour dance marathon sponsored by Metropolis in Motion, a nonprofit organization founded in 2006 by New York City residents who believe that the right to dance should not be restricted.

If the mass of twirling bodies braving the cold at the marathon was any indication, Holtzman is not alone. A total of nearly 400 people participated from noon Friday to noon Saturday, seeking to raise awareness of the laws, which curb dancing in any public establishment that lacks a cabaret license — meaning many bars and small clubs that find themselves priced out of dancing.

Shaking her tree on Saturday to D.J. Tarquin spinning a style called breakz, Elia Masur vented her frustration with the law.

“I love to dance, but clubs are expensive, and people are there to see and be seen, sipping cocktails and being self-conscious,” she said. “The feeling of moving your body and moving with other people is very important. We are distanced from each other without that.”

Metropolis in Motion members trace the most recent crackdown on dancing in small establishments to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who created the Nightclub Enforcement Task Force in 1997 to enact his quality-of-life campaign. Ever since, according to the pro-dance group’s Web site, the city has been waging a war against nightlife culture and industry, using its most lethal weapon: the Prohibition-era cabaret laws.

Norman Siegel, one of several attorneys present at the dance marathon, explained to the gathering on the event’s first day that the laws date from 1926, when they were used to limit “colored people dancing with Caucasians.”

Metropolis in Motion’s Web site says the law defines dancing as “three or more people moving in synchronized fashion” and that in 1960, there were 12,000 cabaret licenses in the five boroughs; now there are 200.

Abner Greene, a First Amendment expert and Fordham University Law School professor who attended the dance marathon, said, “Dancing is expression, and is thus presumptively protected by the First Amendment.

“Totally disallowing dancing unless the establishment has a hard-to-get cabaret license is a classically overbroad ordinance and is unconstitutional,” he said.

Metropolis in Motion is helping to draft a revision to the cabaret laws with City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who argues that the cabaret license should continue to be required for venues that can hold more than 200 people, but that licensing is unnecessary for smaller clubs, where the enforcement of existing zoning, noise and occupancy laws address potential safety concerns.

David Rabin, owner of Lotus nightclub on W. 14th St. and president of the New York Nightlife Association, said NYNA concurs. The nightlife association, he said, supports an incidental dancing exemption “whereby if a venue is not a dance club per se, but is just a bar or lounge or a live music venue and 20 or fewer people are moving to the music or a couple is dancing in a corner to a jukebox, there should be no penalty. It is ludicrous in that scenario,” he said.

John Libanati, owner of Brite Bar at W. 27th St. and 10th Ave. in Chelsea, has felt the chill of the Police Department breathing down his neck. He tells of a fellow Chelsea bar owner who was ticketed when the police discovered a few patrons dancing after investigating an unrelated noise complaint.

Libanti personally has stopped patrons from dancing in his bar in order to avoid violations. But he said, “If a group of people are standing around, grooving slightly to the music, I won’t stop them.”

Rabin, too, expressed concern about overregulation, because it discourages good operators, while at the same time encouraging “churn and burn” owners who open clubs for a short time before moving on to the next.

“If they overregulate, they run the risk of discouraging good operators from opening in New York,” he said. “I know of plenty of good operators who threw up their hands in frustration and opened clubs in Las Vegas or Miami instead.”

At the same time, Rabin is concerned that eliminating cabaret licenses altogether would indirectly penalize operators who have incurred considerable expense to get licensed. He hopes that if the law is changed, it will include a sunset provision to allow licensed operators time to recoup costs.

While the cabaret license itself is not expensive, it demands investment in a higher level of building code and safety compliance than State Liquor Authority licensing.

Libanti noted that if the cabaret law were repealed, bars and restaurants would jump at the chance to set up a D.J. booth to bring in extra revenue from cover charges. He worries that capacity limits and other safety measures wouldn’t be followed.

Meanwhile, John Mercury of Metropolis in Motion says his group hopes to work with NYNA in getting a law that’s acceptable to everyone.

“Clearly, more collaboration between community interests and the industry is needed,” he said.

At the dance marathon, attorneys Siegel and Paul Chevigny reiterated their position that the cabaret law violates state and federal constitutional protection of free expression.

“No one believes that in New York City, the world capital, the government stops people from dancing unless the government says it’s O.K.,” Siegel said. “When I grew up in Brooklyn, we had a term for this kind of scheme: It’s called cockamamie.”