Clubbers partied when Giuliani and his anti-nightlife deputy mayor Rudy Washington (who once compared clubs to “buckets of blood”) finally left office. But their legacy, the dread cabaret laws, which require even small lounges to possess a difficult-to-obtain license for dancing, remains stubbornly in place – though maybe not for long.
“The cabaret law is irrational, wrong, and an historic relic,” declares City Councilman Alan Gerson, who’s drafting a bill to change it. “It offends me that a legitimate form of expression like dancing is targeted for enforcement.”
Even in the post-Giuliani era, not one promoter or club owner would go on the record about the law, for fear of reprisal (violations can result in the padlocking of a nightclub without so much as a court proceeding). Robert Bookman, an attorney for the New York Nightlife Association, isn’t surprised by their reticence. He says: “I’ve defended clients who’ve been ticketed for having six people dancing near their chairs.”
But now that D.J.’s can be found at upscale restaurants everywhere, more and more owners are (quietly) lobbying to change the law. And they’ve got an ally in Gerson, a Lower East Sider who’s working with pro-nightlife group Legalize Dancing NYC to “deregulate dancing” – meaning that bars and restaurants without cabaret licenses won’t be raided by cops if patrons decide to bust out some moves.
But even if Gerson succeeds, all may not be well in clubland. The bipartisan Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act of 2002 (yes, that’s really its name), just introduced into Congress by senators Joseph Biden of Delaware and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, proposes that nightclub owners be fined up to $250,000 and have their clubs shut down if they’re found guilty of keeping “drug-involved premises.”
“If this bill passes, the cabaret laws won’t mean anything,” says Centro-Fly owner Tom Sisk, “because owning a nightclub will become exceptionally hazardous.”
Still, Bookman and other legal experts say the RAVE Act would face serious constitutional hurdles, and Legalize Dancing NYC vows that it’ll continue its fight regardless of what happens with the federal bill. Last Wednesday, the group held a fund-raiser called “Save the Last Dance,” and it’s planning a huge rally in Tompkins Square Park for the fall, when the City Council will likely vote on the Gerson bill. “Reforming the cabaret laws can seem like this abstract thing,” says Eric Demby of Legalize Dancing NYC, “but we’re really after something simple: the right to dance.”