The city's cabaret law

Talking points on the law that keeps your boogie-down, well, down.

Life is a cabaret—provided you’re in one of the city’s 181 establishments where dancing is allowed. That’s because in 1926, Mayor Jimmy Walker issued an edict—meant to curb interracial mingling at jazz clubs—that prohibited booty shaking at any nightspot with music and food or drink.

The archaic “cabaret law” remained largely unenforced until Mayor Giuliani revived it as part of his quality-of-life initiatives. Then, in 2004, the Department of Consumer Affairs proposed (and later abandoned under pressure) a controversial “nightlife license” that would further crack down on noise and overcrowding. A year later, the New York Supreme Court case Festa v. New York City tried to argue that footloose citizens are protected by the First Amendment and therefore the cabaret law is illegal, but the boggie ban was upheld.

That brings us to the puritanical present. DCA spokesperson Beth Miller says there aren’t any immediate plans to reform the law. Festa lawyer Paul Chevigny isn’t hopeful either. “The age-old fear of dancing is represented in terms of noise, drugs and overcrowding,” he says, “but underneath it all, it’s people feeling that dancing is, in some unspoken way, dangerous.”

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