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Do You Wanna Dance?

New York’s cabaret laws are challenged by an unlikely troupe of dance enthusiasts and civil-rights lawyers.

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Paul Chevigny isn’t exactly a club kid, but the NYU Law School professor is leading a legal challenge to finally rid the city of its 79-year-old cabaret laws, which require bars and restaurants to get licenses to allow dancing by more than three people at a time. During Rudy Giuliani’s administration, they were deployed as part of his quality-of-life crackdowns. Mayor Bloomberg has been less interested in controlling nightlife—he told the Times last year that “I don’t think in this day and age we need dancing police. Let’s get serious. Who cares if you dance?” Nonetheless, when Chevigny (pictured left) and civil-liberties guru Norman Siegel sued this summer on behalf of four plaintiffs who want to dance without legal consequence, the city fought back, filing a motion to dismiss. Final papers are due November 18. Where does that leave New York’s dancers? Chevigny, who has experience fighting the city’s nightlife laws—he successfully got the equally loathed “three-musicians law” off the books in 1988, allowing for live music in bars and restaurants—says, “If the judge denies the motion to dismiss, that means we’re in reasonably good shape. Because that means he thinks there’s something to the argument about expression from social dance.”

The Plaintiffs
All they want is a place to get down. Come and meet these dancing feet.


Ian Dutton, 36, airline pilot.
Can be found at Byte or Contempt
Dancing to “electronic, industrial, and EBM.”
“The origins of the laws are racially biased and in their current incarnation are only used to punish what are not bad businesses at all. They crack down on businesses that just want to allow dancing. Dancing is an outlet that allows me to work out the tension of everyday life in a creative manner. Not unlike a blues sax player, my instrument is my dancing.”


Byron Cox, 30, systems engineer.
Can be found at Sapphire
Dancing to house music.
“I think [the laws were] a reactionary measure—we’re talking the early 1900s. Things that were surrounding bands or music had to be tamed. As far as looking for a reason—I think they were unreasonable then and totally unfounded now.”


Meredith Stead, 49, NYU law student.
Can be found at Big Apple Ranch
Dancing to country-and-western music.
“After many years in dance—having my own modern company, opening my own studio—I retired and entered law school. When I found out that Professor Chevigny had worked on the cabaret laws as they related to jazz musicians in the past, I started nagging him about doing the same for dance.”


John Festa, 50, self-employed manufacturer of corsets and bustiers.
Can be found at the Saloon on York Avenue
Dancing to “West Coast swing, occasionally Lindy Hop, two-step.”
“I would love to somehow help to alleviate the difficulty in finding spots to dance and have establishments offer dancing more easily to their clientele. Dancing to me is life itself.”


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