Above: A member of the campaign lobbies council members to get rid of the Cabret Act. Credit to the Dance Liberation Network’s Insta acount.
If you thought Ireland had poxy restrictions when it came to dancing, wait til you hear about New York’s Cabaret Laws. They were forged in 1926 amidst an atmosphere charged with racial fears of Jazz music. Much like our own 1935 Dancehall Act so. While we’re stuck with that piece of shit legislation New Yorkers have reason to rejoice as it looks like tomorrow they are voting to get rid of the Cabaret Laws. Rashers Tierney chatted to John Barclay, an organizer with the Dance Liberation Network who have been driving the campaign.
Can you give me a bit of background on the law itself, like what was happening in New York at the time it was brought in, who was behind it and how come it managed to linger on in the background until now?
It was enacted in 1926 during Prohibition amidst the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. White kids were getting into Black music for the first time and the old, mean white people in charge of the city were not feeling it. The city instituted the Cabaret Laws, take note of the “s”, it was a number of regulations, as a way of controlling this phenomenon. The No Dancing Law was bundled with a Cabaret Card system and the Three Musician Rule, which almost entirely forbid jazz arrangements.
The law remains because NYC government has fought very hard, with all their resources for 91 years. A century’s worth of evidence of blatant racism and homophobia has not yet been enough to embarrass them into letting go.
How is alcohol regulated in New York? Is the law intertwined with that?
Alcohol is generally regulated by the State Liquor Authority who also enforce the law.
What about this special force that carries out raids associated with the act? How does that work?
It seems that more often than not unlicensed dancing violations are carried out in tandem with MARCH Task Force raids. MARCH is an interdepartmental task force that raids bars, restaurants and cafes in NYC using what many have referred to as “Counterterrorism Methods”. It is very extra to say the least. It looks like a scene out of a Mission Impossible Movie.
What kind of fines or punishments do people face if they violate the law?
I believe the fines average somewhere around $800 nowadays but the fine has never been the problem. The problem is that after a few violations the authorities can shut any venue down permanently.
I read about the emergence of “lounges” – venues that would play dance music but restrict people to sitting around, chilling in the 1990s after the headiness of the 1980s and during Giuliani’s crackdown – did people internalise the law, like take it on and self-police on nights out?
There has never been a moment when New Yorkers stopped dancing. The cops can start jailing us and staging public executions but we will never, ever stop dancing. What happened post-Giuliani is the dance scene split and gravitated towards two poles. On one hand you had bottle service clubs, catering to wealthy white people and tourists. They were generally left alone as they had political and financial insulation from the laws.
On the other hand you have queer communities, people of color, and just general NYC subculture: They went underground. Warehouse raves. Rogue DIY spaces. This dichotomy still exists: Rich people dance in the wide open, everyone else is treated like outlaws. Because of that NYC has, without a doubt, the most thriving warehouse rave scene in the world.
Did people organise to get around the Cabaret Laws? I’m thinking of private member clubs, underground venues and word of mouth culture. Did the laws have an adverse effect of encouraging these to develop?
There are a million tricks that New Yorkers use to try to skirt this stupid law but I cannot reveal any because we still use them and it’s possible the cops are reading this. I can promise you they are absurd.
The campaign is pretty heavy in terms of labelling the law racist, can put this in context maybe. Like how is it used to target particular communities over others? Is this deliberate or is it just a function of structural racism?
While the city has admitted to the racist origins of the law, they have yet to apologize for its explicitly racist enforcement today. Between Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx there has only been one Cabaret Conviction of a White establishment in over a year.
Almost all of the convictions go to non-white immigrant venues, mostly Afro-Caribbean and Latino. Non-white venue operators live in constant paranoia while white gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg host huge Dance Festivals in the wide open. Seems deliberate to me but who knows.
For more information check out the campaign website.