Cabaret Law Revealed
Before it was repealed, NYC’s Cabaret Law required venues that have set show times and/or charge a cover to obtain a cabaret license. These establishments are also only allowed in certain zoning districts and Use Groups.
Even though the portion of the law that specified musicians must be fingerprinted was deemed unconstitutional in 1988, getting a cabaret license is still extremely difficult.
Currently only 97 establishments in the city have cabaret licenses. That means most of the people dancing in NYC bars and clubs are doing so illegally. But this could change. Since the 1990s, several organizations have worked tirelessly to pass legislation to repeal the Cabaret Law, including Legalize Dancing NYC and Metropolis in Motion.
The Dance Liberation Network was also instrumental in pushing for the bill. They worry that squelching legitimate venues through Cabaret law violations will drive people to less-safe underground parties and make the city more vulnerable to future disasters like the Ghost Ship fire.
Despite the repeal of the Cabaret Law, the dominant law restricting dancing in New York City remains the Zoning Resolution, which requires large establishments to have a liquor license and comply with building, health, fire and security codes. These laws will have a big impact on the number of places where social dancing is allowed. Until these laws are changed, many establishments will continue to have difficulty getting a license.
Back in the days of Prohibition and speakeasies, cabaret cards were coveted by performers like Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Elmo Hope, and Jackie McLean. These cards were revoked for a variety of reasons, from drug charges to alleged obscenity. Many of these artists found their careers were essentially over when they lost their cards.
Nowadays, restaurants and clubs are required to obtain a cabaret license to allow dancing. To do so, establishments must prove that they are located in a zoning district that permits dancing and satisfy all other zoning requirements. They must also undergo a thorough inspection of their premises and meet all fire and building codes.
The annual fees for a cabaret license are based on the capacity of the establishment in persons. The director may impose additional fees for special events and for the use of the premises to be licensed. A license must be posted at the place of business.
As a part of the Cabaret Law instituted during Prohibition to control speakeasies, establishments that allow dancing must obtain a Cabaret license. The application process is lengthy and includes a hefty fee. The venue must also demonstrate that it is in a zoning district that permits dancing, and meet all building and fire codes. Moreover, it must satisfy the local community board.
A cabaret license is not granted if another premises that holds such a license is within 500 feet. This applies to both existing and proposed licensees. In addition, the New York State Liquor Authority must find that public convenience and advantage will be served by granting a license.
A cabaret license does not allow a disc jockey or karaoke machine, nor can the licensed premises be used for sexually explicit performances. It also does not permit a male or female to expose their breasts unless fully clothed. In 2006, the Cabaret Law was challenged on First Amendment grounds in Festa v. City of New York, when members of Gotham West Coast Swing Club were denied their right to dance for fun.
After a long period of time when the Cabaret Law was mostly ignored, it was revived by Mayor Giuliani as part of his “broken windows” approach to policing. Now, if a venue has dancing and doesn’t have a cabaret license, the SLA can shut it down. In an episode of THUMP’s podcast, Rachel Nelson and John Barclay, owners of Happyfun Hideaway and Bossa Nova Civic Club, respectively, discussed the difficulties their businesses have faced because of the Cabaret Law.
Both are challenging the law in Federal court, arguing that it is unconstitutional and violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights. They argue that the law is outdated and discriminates against nightlife establishments and their patrons. In addition, they are seeking to have the cabaret license application process streamlined. The application requires that the applicant appear before their local community board and meet certain surveillance and security requirements. It also requires that the applicant pay a fee, which can be expensive for smaller venues.