Volume 75, Number 7 | July 6 - 12, 2005

Dance activists file lawsuit to reform cabaret laws

By Johanna Petersson

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Norman Siegel is one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs
Like a conga line that got lost, the dance liberation movement took a hiatus for a year or two, but, like Tony Manero at 2001 Odyssey, they just couldn’t stay away.

Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties who is making his second run for public advocate, has gone to court to defend the right to boogie in bars. Two weeks ago, Siegel filed a lawsuit against the Department of Consumer Affairs, Department of Buildings, City Planning Commission and the city of New York challenging as arbitrary the city’s zoning restrictions on dancing, as well as claiming that prohibiting people’s right to dance is unconstitutional.

Siegel has teamed up with law professor Paul Chevigny, a New York University law professor who 13 years ago won a case in State Supreme Court that partially changed the city’s cabaret laws. Representing the musicians’ union, Chevigny succeeded in getting abolished the musicians’ clause that prohibited more than three musicians from playing together — as well as drums and horns being played — in live-music venues without cabaret licenses.

The plaintiffs in the current suit include Meredith Stead, a social dancing teacher who instructs in such styles as waltz, foxtrot and Latin; John Festa, a West Coast swing dancer; Gotham West Coast Swing Club; Bryan Cox, who teaches house dance; and Ian Dutton, a social dancer in the goth/industrial community.

In New York, the city that never sleeps and often regarded as the nightlife capital of the world, it is currently illegal to move one’s feet from side to side, get jiggy with it, shake one’s booty or move in any other way that might be interpreted as dancing in a restaurant or bar that doesn’t have a cabaret license.

There are at present 212 cabaret licenses issued in the five boroughs, and they are restricted under the city’s zoning to areas zoned Use Group 12, such as manufacturing-zoned areas.

But Siegel and the dance advocates are not down with that — and say people should be able to get down freely. Restricting social dancing is a restriction of freedom of expression, the lawsuit argues.

“The time has come,” Siegel said, “to let New Yorkers fully enjoy their constitutional right to dance.”

Siegel and the cabaret law reform advocates say the current laws have nothing to do with dancing but were revived during the Guiliani years as a way to control noise and overcrowding, issues they say should be addressed through other means.

A couple of years ago, then-Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra expressed hopes that a new system of nightlife regulations on noise, unruly crowds and dirty sidewalks would replace the laws against dancing. A public hearing was held, but since then Consumer Affairs has been silent on the issue.

According to nightlife industry sources, the Bloomberg administration was reluctant to push Dykstra’s cabaret law reforms after only just recently having instituted the smoking ban — mainly because operators feared the administration was going to push for a 1 a.m. closing time, and were ready to revolt. Dykstra has since moved on to head up the World Trade Central Memorial Foundation.

“This issue has just dragged on for years and years,” Chevigny said, “and now we came up with a theory of challenging it as an issue of free expression under the state constitution.”

Plaintiff Dutton is a pilot who lives in Soho and is a public member of Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2. He is a founder of Contempt, a nonprofit collective that sponsors goth/industrial dances.

“We have had problems finding a place because places with cabaret licenses prefer events with big spenders,” he said. “My friends and I don’t order bottles of champagne — we just want to have an event where our kind of music is played. Also, we have had problems in the past with having to move places because of the cabaret license laws and inspectors coming in.”

Dutton and his friends organize a monthly dance club at a location in the Village which doesn’t have a cabaret license. The trouble with challenging the Cabaret License Law, said Dutton, is that some people feel the community is loosing out on deciding what kind of bars and restaurants are opening up in the neighborhood. But he feels the community board by advising on liquor license applications gives the community full opportunity to voice its concerns.

“Just because people might be dancing, doesn’t mean that a place is good or bad,” he said. “I live on Sullivan St. and we have had a bar that played loud music, and often with its windows open — no one was dancing there — but they were still not a great neighbor to have.”

Dating from the Prohibition era, the 1926 Cabaret License Law requires any nightlife spot that wants to host dancing to hold a city-issued cabaret license. A D.C.A. spokesperson said the department has no comment on whether it is considering changing the current cabaret laws. “The Cabaret License Law is currently in force, and we enforce it,” the spokesperson said. “We received the complaint in this action and we are preparing our response.” The parties were to appear in court on June 29 to schedule the submission of both sides’ papers to the court.

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