New York City's Dancing Prohibition Remains a Barrier to Entry, Equality

New York’s 1960s-era zoning code still prohibits dancing in small bars and restaurants in more than 80 percent of the city, but Mayor Eric Adams and Legalize Dance.Org want to change that.
  By Mark H. McNulty  @McNultyRanks

New York City is the home of hip-hop and salsa and a home away from home for many other music genres and styles of dance, but its zoning code still technically prohibits dancing in small bars and restaurants in over 80 percent of the city.

In 2017, New York repealed its Prohibition-era Cabaret Law, which required establishments hosting dancing to possess a cabaret license and was often enforced in a discriminatory manner. However, the city did not change the underlying zoning code that prohibits dancing outside manufacturing zones and certain commercial zones.
Now, Mayor Eric Adams wants to end the dancing ban as part of a package of land use reforms called “City of Yes” that would cut red tape for small businesses and speed up minor zoning changes. The zoning text amendment which addresses dancing, Zoning for Economic Opportunity, will undergo public review at the end of 2023. 

Enforcement of the zoning regulations around dancing tapered off after 2017, but the regulations force existing establishments to operate in a legal gray zone and serve as a barrier to entry to new ones, dragging not only on the city’s economy but also its culture.
“Access to social dancing is important,” says Candace Thompson-Zachery, the Director of Programming and Justice Initiatives at Dance/NYC, a non-profit that supports the dance industry. “Hip-hop is largely a social form that was born in parties in basements and on street corners. Things like salsa were also born here in largely social dance spaces…It’s these enclaves of bars, restaurants, and event spaces that give rise to new cultural forms and new cultural phenomena.”

Unfinished business

Ariel Palitz, the first Director of the Mayor's Office of Night Life (ONL), who very recently stepped down, described the proposed zoning text amendment in 2022 as “unfinished business.” In a statement, the Office of Nightlife again connects the Cabaret Law to the proposed zoning changes. “The City of Yes initiative proposes an adjustment to the current zoning laws, completing the full repeal of the Cabaret Law, promoting fairness and equality,” they say.

One nail in the Cabaret Law’s coffin was a 2014 first amendment lawsuit against the Cabaret Law filed by Andrew Muchmore, former owner of Muchmore’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “In hindsight, it probably would have been important to include the zoning regulations in our lawsuit,” Muchmore says. “They were sort of a loose end.”

ONL clarified the repeal in 2017: “While the requirement to obtain a Cabaret license has been repealed, the underlying requirements that allow for patron dancing were not eliminated…If the nightlife venue was not permitted to have dancing before the cabaret license was repealed, it is likely that it is still not allowed.”

Map of New York City showing in purple areas where dancing is allowed as of right, which is less than 20% of the city.
Dance Parade New York believes live dance
has the potential to awaken a communal human spirit
which can help build a more equitable and vibrant society.


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