It's Time to Legalize Dancing in NYC
New York City recently announced some major administrative and regulatory changes to its nightlife. We asked legendary DJ Jonathan Toubin, of New York Night Train fame, what these new developments could mean for the Big Apple.
On September 20, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill establishing New York City's first-ever Office of Nightlife. As someone who's been involved in New York nightlife for a couple of decades, first as a musician and later as a DJ, I'm thrilled to hear that, along with creating a new position for what is being colloquially dubbed as the "Night Mayor," the repeal of the city's outdated cabaret law is finally being taken seriously.
These historically racist legal codes date back to the days of Prohibition. Back in 1926, during the generational wars of the height of the Jazz Age, Mayor Jimmy Walker signed a series of administrative rules designed to not only help restrict the illegal sale of alcohol in New York speakeasies, but also to prevent the interracial co-mingling and dancing that was becoming increasingly common. Because people danced exclusively to live music at that point, the law also applied to musicians. Venues thus needed a cabaret license to present live music and/or dancing, and musicians themselves were required to carry New York City Cabaret Identification Cards. Not only were these licenses difficult to obtain and easy to revoke by design, they required musicians be fingerprinted and interviewed in order to perform. Both venues and musicians could have their permits revoked due to a "morals clause." National treasures like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, all three of whom have appeared on federal postage stamps, had their cards revoked and faced huge setbacks when they couldn't legally perform in New York City.
Cabaret Identification Cards were abolished in 1967, and by the late 80s, the weakening laws seemed to have lost their grip on live music. But while the cabaret law lay dormant in clubland for long periods during its nine-decade reign, it was repeatedly resurrected over the years as an excuse to access, harass, and often shut down nightclubs. It's no surprise that black, brown, LGBTQ, and countercultural venues bore the brunt of these legislations. Despite how repugnant the cabaret law has been since its inception, and how impossible it is to imagine this comically archaic law's existence in the 21st century, it continues to wreak havoc on the culture of New York City and the lives of all the workers who labor to create a massive local and tourist economy.