Looking to end tap dance around cabaret laws

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Dance activists did the hokeypokey during a break in a public hearing about changing the cabaret laws.

Both the city and nightlife advocates agree that New York City’s 77-year-old cabaret laws are antiquated. But after the Department of Consumer Affairs held a recent public hearing on the topic it remains unclear whether the laws will be eased into retirement.

At a six-hour hearing at New York Law School on Worth St. two weeks ago, dance advocates and nightclub owners spoke out in favor of abolishing the city’s cabaret laws. The laws began as a way to regulate underground speakeasies during Prohibition. Today, only the 332 clubs citywide that have cabaret licenses can legally allow dancing, although this rule is often flouted.

Dance advocates expressed guarded optimism that the city was moving in the right direction by reconsidering the laws and listening to public feedback.

“For the first time for us, things are looking fairly bright,” said Andy Gensler, a co-founder of Legalize Dancing NYC.

Dina Improta, a spokesperson for the Department of Consumer Affairs, last week cautioned that the agency was still gathering input on the laws.

“I don’t know if we’ve decided anything,” Improta said, adding that no timetable had been set for the review process. “We haven’t even decided to do away with the laws.”

Under the laws, nightspots that offer dancing must pay between $600 and $1,000 for a two-year cabaret license. Before last week’s hearing, Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra said that the agency has only two inspectors who work late at night to enforce the cabaret laws.

“It’s not a tremendous number, but that’s why we’re proud of the enforcement we have done,” Dykstra said.

Certain police precincts with a lot of nightlife, like the East Village’s Ninth Precinct, and the Sixth Precint which covers the Village have special cabaret units, as well.

This year, the city has padlocked 11 unlicensed clubs for allowing dancing.

A complex web of laws regulates the city’s nightlife industry, with various building and fire code standards required for a cabaret license. In addition, cabaret licenses fall under Use Group 12 of the city’s zoning regulations, which means that clubs and restaurants offering dancing are only allowed in certain manufacturing and commercial zones such as Tribeca, but not in strictly residential areas. This zoning provision would not change if the cabaret laws were repealed.

The city defines Use Group 12 as entertainment facilities “with a wide service area” that generate considerable pedestrian or vehicular traffic. According to the regulations, this could include, among other categories, eating or drinking establishments with entertainment and a capacity of more than 200 persons, or establishments of any capacity with dancing.

Councilmember Alan Gerson is working on removing dancing from the cabaret laws altogether and adding noise rules, now enforced by the Department of Environmental Protection, into the revised regulations.

“Dancing in and of itself is not an activity with an impact on the surrounding community,” Gerson said, who testified at the hearing. “At best, dancing regulations are used as an inept way of controlling other things, like noise and crowds.”

Establishments that offer dancing can of course become noisy and must abide by noise regulations, Gerson said. Currently, the city’s enforcement of noise codes is too sporadic, he added, contributing to a climate where a quiet, nonlicensed establishment could be shuttered for allowing dancing while a noisy, disruptive club without dancing could be allowed to operate without penalty.

“It’s ridiculous,” Gerson said.

At last week’s hearing, nightclub owners addressed the importance of responding to community concerns about noise and other issues. Lon Ballinger of Webster Hall on E. 11th St. said that he spent more than $400,000 soundproofing the club, the city’s largest cabaret at 40,000 sq. ft. After initial community resistance, Webster Hall is generally considered a good neighbor.

Ballinger said, “You’ve got to be constantly aware” of the impact a club has on the surrounding community.

Others focused on what they view as a constitutional right to free expression.

“There is no legitimate basis for the government to restrict dancing,” said Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It would be like restricting talking.”


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