New Yorkers Can Now Put On Dancing Shoes And Legally Get 'Footloose' In Public Spaces

Nov 5, 2017
Originally published on November 8, 2017 6:05 pm

In the movie Footloose, protagonist Ren McCormack fights against a draconian dance ban in a small town. Against all odds, students at Ren's high school end up organizing their prom and dance the night away.

People in New York City will now be able to dance the night away as well — without any legal restrictions.

Earlier this week, the New York City Council voted to repeal a 91-year-old law that banned dancing at most city public spaces that sell food or drinks.

Andrew Muchmore, lawyer and owner of Muchmore's bar and music venue, was cited in 2013 under this law by the city for "unlawful swaying."

"We had a noise complaint from a neighbor for people speaking too loudly on the sidewalk, and when police came out, they issued two summons: one for violation of the NYC noise code and one for the violation of the Cabaret Law," Muchmore told NPR's Scott Simon.

The now-repealed Cabaret Law prohibited people from dancing in any room, place or space in New York City, that lacked a "cabaret license." This, Muchmore says, was problematic for quite a few reasons.

"That license is very difficult to obtain and was only possessed by about 100 bars and restaurants out of one 25,000 in New York," Muchmore says. The vagueness of the term "dancing" was also cause for concern, he adds. Is nodding your head considered dancing? Tapping your toes? Swaying from side to side?

The law was enacted in 1926 during Prohibition and was enforced sporadically through the years.

Journalist and filmmaker Ina Sotirova produced a film called freedom2dance, which looks into the history of the Cabaret Law and its implications.

"It's really understood and believed that [the Cabaret Law] was implemented in order to keep white people and black people from intermingling and dancing together in Harlem jazz bars," Sotirova told NPR.

According to Sotirova, the law has been historically enforced in black establishments in New York City.

Originally, the law did not just target those who were dancing, but went after musicians as well. Licenses were also required for three or more musicians to play. The license requirement for musicians was done away with in 1988, but the dancing ban continued to be enforced.

In Sotirova's documentary, she shows that Mayor Rudy Giuliani's city government enforced the dancing ban at a heightened level, citing it was required for the safety of patrons.

"This law, instead of making safer for dancing in New York — it's actually creating and amplifying the need for illegal, unregulated and often unsafe spaces to go dancing," Sotirova says.

The recent repeal bill was pushed by city council member Rafael L. Espinal. On Tuesday, all 41 council members present voted in favor of the repeal, except one. This repeal can release some of the stress various establishments without the cabaret licenses have been placed under.

"The repeal also means that New Yorkers' freedom of movement and expression can never again be curtailed because of a law based in racist ideology," Sotirova says. "Dancing is a primordial and universal language that cannot and should not be controlled by the state."

To celebrate the repeal of the dance ban, Muchmore will be celebrating accordingly.

"We're going to throw a dance party this Saturday night — our first ever," he told Weekend Edition.

Hopefully their dance party is as fun as Footloose's final dance scene at the prom.

Eric McDaniel and Ed McNulty produced and edited the audio for this interview.

Jose Olivares is an NPR Digital News intern.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's a moment to dance in New York. The New York City Council has voted to repeal a ban on dancing in bars and restaurants that's been on the books for 91 years. The so-called Cabaret Law was passed during Prohibition - a way to crack down on speakeasies. Racially mixed jazz clubs were also targets, but the ban's been enforced irregularly over the last nine decades. However, it's never quite gone away. You could just ask Andrew Muchmore. He's a lawyer and owns Muchmore's. It's a bar and music venue in Brooklyn. It was cited in 2013 for unlawful swaying. Mr. Muchmore joins us from New York.

Thanks very much for being with us.

ANDREW MUCHMORE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Are you swaying now?

MUCHMORE: Just a little bit, within legal bounds.

SIMON: So what happened?

MUCHMORE: We had a noise complaint from a neighbor from people speaking too loudly on the sidewalk. And when the police came out, they issued two summons, one for violation of the New York City noise code and one for violation the Cabaret Law, which in the context of bars and restaurants, prohibits musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other forms of amusement without a license. And that license is very difficult to obtain and was only possessed by about a hundred bars and restaurants out of more than 25,000 in New York.

SIMON: All the years I've spent in and out of one establishment or another in New York, I never until this moment feared that I could run into - run afoul of the law in something like this. It's been very selectively enforced, hasn't it?

MUCHMORE: The enforcement has been uneven and arbitrary. It is a law that is fairly universally ignored, which allows it to be enforced often against groups that are more vulnerable and less politically popular. For instance, if someone wants to open up a hip-hop club, they're likely to run into more difficulties with their local community board than if they're opening up a rock club. In the same time, it's gone through periods of strict enforcement. In the '40s, '50s, '60s, you needed a cabaret card to be able to perform. And a lot of really famous musicians, like Chet Baker and Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, lost their cabaret cards due to either narcotics violations or any other character issues and were unable to play music in the city of New York.

SIMON: So you would - you didn't just take this swaying down, did you?

MUCHMORE: (Laughter) No, I didn't. The swaying cuts to the unconstitutional vagueness and overbreadth of the law. When the police came, we were hosting a rock concert. And in fact, we were forced to censor the genres of music we could play because the law. If we were to host DJs or electronic dance music or hip-hop or merengue or salsa or anything like that, people would dance. And we would run afoul of the law. So we had to play genres that would not lead to dancing. But then that begs the question, what is dancing?

SIMON: Yeah.

MUCHMORE: Swaying, toe tapping, head nodding - will any of that trigger the law? And it just was not clearly defined, leaving it open to abuse.

SIMON: So you're a lawyer. They really just went to court against the wrong guy, didn't they?

MUCHMORE: Well, it was more the principle of it. I got a ticket, and I intended to challenge it. And when I showed up the court, they had no record of the ticket. It had apparently been thrown out or disposed of, but it got me thinking about what a absurd and unconstitutional law this was with the First Amendment and 14th Amendment issues that it posed. And I decided that I should file a lawsuit to challenge its constitutionality in federal court.

SIMON: And that prevailed.

MUCHMORE: The likelihood that the law was going to get struck down was one of the factors that contributed to the council's decision to repeal it. But there were also many groups that came together to push for the repeal.

SIMON: Mr. Muchmore, I'm told you also have a laundromat in your bar.

MUCHMORE: I do have a small laundromat in the back. It's a New Orleans thing. I grew up in New Orleans, and there a lot of the bars have laundries so that while you're doing your laundry, you can have a beer or a coffee and get to know your neighbors.

SIMON: How are you going to celebrate?

MUCHMORE: We're going to throw a dance party this Saturday night, I believe - our first ever.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Muchmore, congratulations. And good swaying to you, OK?

MUCHMORE: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Andrew Muchmore, esquire and owner of Muchmore's in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY LOGGINS SONG, "FOOTLOOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.