Famous jazz musicians Art Tatum and Phil Moore standing outside a Club Downbeat in New York City.
William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress
explainer / culture

The Racist Legacy of NYC’s Anti-Dancing Law

The cabaret law—and its prejudicial history—is one of the city's darkest secrets.
It sounds like it belongs on a list of weird, obsolete laws in America, alongside the Alaskan statute against giving a moose a beer or Idaho's allowance for cannibalism in life-or-death situations. But New York City's cabaret law, which bans three or more people from dancing in a club or bar that lacks a special license, is a strange old law that is still very much in effect.

Under the cabaret law, owners of establishments that wish to allow dancing must apply for a special "Cabaret License" through a notoriously difficult process. Before the license is granted, applicants must jump through several bureaucratic hoops, like seeking approvals from the building and fire departments, installing surveillance cameras, and paying fees ranging from $300 to $1,000. As of last year, according to the city's department of consumer affairs, only about 127 of the city's more than 12,000 clubs and bars actually have cabaret licenses.

Unique in the nation, though similar to prohibitions on dancing in some other parts of the world, New York's cabaret law has been on the city's books for nearly a century. It was introduced under Mayor Jimmy Walker in 1926, with the goal of making it easier for police to control speakeasies and clubs that were illegally serving alcohol under Prohibition. Since then, the law has gone unenforced for long periods, been amended several times, and become a focus of furious political conflict—but it has never been repealed. As a result, its use by the authorities to enforce institutional racism and classism has become a sort of secret history of New York nightlife.

According to a 1987 article in the New York Times, the cabaret law was meant to ensure fire safety, enforce occupancy limits, and monitor the moral character of club owners. However, the original legislation not only banned dancing in unlicensed clubs, but also limited permitted instruments to strings, keyboards, and electronic soundsystems—leaving out jazz staples like wind, percussion, and brass. In addition, it prohibited more than three musicians from playing at one time—provisions that impacted Harlem jazz clubs and jazz bands the most.
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