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IMG: Gersh Kuntzman
Life Ainít a Cabaret, Old Chum  
For years, dancingís been forbidden in New York bars that donít have Ďcabaretí licenses. But the days of being busted for busting a move may be coming to a close  

    June 30 —  In the city of New York, if you and two friends put some money in a jukebox and start swaying to a classic song like “Y.M.C.A.,” you are violating the law.  

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        IT’S NOT THAT city officials are hostile to the timeless music of The Village People. It’s the dancing that’s illegal.
        Call it whatever you like—writhing, shimmying, bumping, grinding, “the white-man’s overbite”—but if three or more people are executing it in a bar, nightclub or music hall that does not have a valid New York City “cabaret” license, the establishment will be fined.
        If such “violations” occur again, they can be padlocked.
        So in other words, the people of Afghanistan—freed from the yoke of the Taliban—can once again dance. But the people of New York City—oppressed by the legacy of Rudy Giuliani—are still waiting for their liberation.
        But the days of being busted for busting a move may be coming to a close. Last week, the city announced that it was going to “reconsider” its 77-year-old anti-dancing law—a Prohibition Era attempt to regulate jazz (which, at the time, was scarier to city officials than dancing because it encouraged the races to intermingle, whether in mixed-race bands or on the dance floors of “black” clubs in Harlem).
        The law regulated not only the music (banning performances by bands of three musicians or more), but dancing as well.
        In the 1980s, the regulations covering band size were declared unconstitutional. But the dance regulations remained. They were forsaken, of course, until then-Mayor Giuliani realized in 1997 he could use the law as a way of closing down bars suspected of allowing under-age drinking and drug-dealing. (This was back when Rudy was “New York’s Meshugenneh,” before he became “America’s Mayor.”)
        The no-dancing law was great for the vindictive senatorial wannabe. An undercover cop would drop by a “problem” joint, order a Virgin Mary, wait for the inevitable swaying, and issue the summons. The cop could return a few days later, perhaps biding his time with a cranberry and soda, again wait for the inevitable swaying, and issue a padlock order. No sclerotic state liquor agencies to prod into action. No shared jurisdiction with the Drug Enforcement Agency. No AFT agents swarming all over your city.
        And you thought “Footloose” was just a movie. Giuliani’s enforcement of the cabaret laws could easily be turned into a sequel.
        When he closed down a bar called Hogs and Heifers—famous for celebrities dancing on the bar—many saw it as a symbol that the mayor didn’t want anyone to have a good time. The owner of the joint repeatedly said that Rudy targeted her high-profile bar via enforcement of the cabaret law because it was the easiest way to send that message.
        Giuliani’s crackdown created an entirely new class of civil rights activists in New York, united under the flag of the “Dance Liberation Front.” Although ineffective by any measure, DLF events were certainly more fun to cover than the sit-ins, the marches and the occasional clashes with police that characterized anti-Rudy activism. After all, it was the Dance Liberation Front that organized the famed “Million Mambo March” and a truly outstanding group “Hokey Pokey” around City Hall (believed to have been the first “Hokey Pokey” at that historic site since the Golden Age of the “Hokey Pokey” in the late 1700s).
        Many of those mambo kings and hokey pokers were on hand last week at a public hearing that the city held as a first step toward reforming the cabaret law. Now, when you’ve been covering New York City as long as I have, you know to skip these hearings because they typically end up being overrun by performance artists who seem to believe that if they show up wearing feather boas, leg-warmers or fishnet stockings, city officials will immediately see things their way (as in, “You know, that bearded man wearing the wedding gown and feather boa really convinced me to rethink this entire issue”).
        Plus, such hearings routinely run six hours, thanks to people getting up to the microphone to restate—frequently in exactly the same words—precisely the same point as the person directly before them.
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        But this hearing was different. Sure, the feather boa crowd made its point, but it became clear early on that city officials are eager to devise a new way to close down noisy, unneighborly bars without punishing people for a little swaying.
        “We don’t want to increase regulations unless they can help us solve the problem,” the city’s Consumer Affairs commissioner, Gretchen Dykstra, told me after the hearing.
        To test the city’s post-Rudy permissiveness, I convened a small group of friends at my neighborhood watering hole and, thanks to the largesse of the NEWSWEEK expense budget, plugged quarter after quarter into the jukebox. When “Y.M.C.A.” came on, well, we did what came naturally.
        I am happy to say that no arrests were reported that night. Then again, the cabaret law distinctly states that only “synchronized motion” by three or more people is illegal. Well, that explains it: Our contortions clearly did not violate the letter of the law.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and a competent swing dancer. His website is at
       © 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
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