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License To Dance

License To Dance
The next time you hit the town, take a look around; you may just see a curious sign: "No Dancing Allowed." Or perhaps try shaking a move; you may be stopped. Believe it or not, it is against the law to have dancing in most New York City clubs and bars. Establishments that do not hold one of the city's few cabaret licenses are breaking the law if they allow their patrons to dance; if caught, they can be subject to fines and shutdowns.

The cabaret laws were enacted in 1926 to regulate nightspots. Through the years the laws have been amended: safety regulations were added after a number of club disasters, while the law requiring that club musicians "must be of good character" was removed.

License To Dance
Some administrations did not enforce the laws, but in 1997, as part of his "quality of life" campaign, Mayor Giuliani used the dancing portion of the laws -- which requires bars and restaurants to hold a cabaret license if their patrons are going to dance -- to clamp down on problem or nuisance establishments. The Bloomberg administration has continued to enforce the laws, subjecting unlicensed bars and clubs to police raids, fines, padlocks, and shutdowns if patrons are caught dancing.

New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) issues cabaret licenses to establishments, and enforces the cabaret laws. They claim that the problem isn't really dancing, but rather nuisances such as noise, violence, and filth cause by poorly managed nightclubs in residential neighborhoods, and would like to find an effective way to ameliorate these problems. But as the law is written now, unlicensed bars and clubs are breaking the law simply if they allow patrons to dance, and therefore are subject to the penalties. Some bar owners feel that they are being targeted unfairly or arbitrarily -- that dancing really isn't a crime and shouldn't be treated as such -- while some club-goers would like to see the dancing clause removed from the law so they can "shake it" in peace. Currently, the DCA is considering ways to amend the law so that problem clubs could be penalized without hurting businesses whose biggest crime is allowing a little booty shaking.

License To Dance
Douglas Singleton, a club-goer who has been told to "sit down," has experienced first-hand the effects the cabaret laws have had on nightlife. Dominique Keegan, owner of Plant Bar, had to transform his nightspot -- once the epicenter of New York DJ culture -- into a neighborhood bar after receiving numerous cabaret violations.

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