Repeal of cabaret law from 1920s led by Councilman Rafael Espinal

City Councilman Rafael Espinal has pledged his support to repealing costly 'cabaret laws' that critics say are outdated and burdensome.
City Councilman Rafael Espinal has pledged his support to repealing costly ‘cabaret laws’ that critics say are outdated and burdensome. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Nick Laham

New York’s dance community brought its concerns about the city’s controversial cabaret law to the City Council Monday, and the city listened.

City Councilman Rafael Espinal told the consumer affairs committee that he intends to repeal the 91-year-old law that fines venues who allow dancing without a permit. He and dozens of activists came to the hearing in hopes the city’s agencies — including its pending nightlife ambassador — wouldn’t be tone deaf.

“It’s ridiculous that dancing in New York City is as illegal as it was in the movie ‘Footloose,’” he said.

There are only 97 venues throughout the city that have a cabaret license, and 40 of them are in Manhattan. The cabaret law was first used during the ‘20s and ‘30s to shut down jazz clubs in Harlem. The city later used it in the ‘90s to remove more small dance halls.

Venue owners and artists say the costly law poses serious barriers to the scene. Rachel Nelson, co-founder of the DIY Bushwick night-spot Secret Project Robot, acknowledged that the venues should be held to high standards, but it’s hard for owners to find the right information and resources to acquire a license.

“I continue to live in the fear for mine and my employee’s economic stability,” she said.

Although city officials couldn’t comment on proposals to remove the cabaret law due to an ongoing lawsuit filed by a Brooklyn bar owner, they did express their support of the DIY scene, which has seen a 20% drop in locations in the past 15 years. Shira Gans, a senior director of policy and programs for the mayor’s office of media and entertainment, said the pending nightlife ambassador and committee will be able to better assist them.

While the office irons out the details of the position, Gans said the city will host town hall meetings where residents and business owners can give feedback.

“We are working to understand the landscape,” she said.