the racist origins of new york’s ‘no dancing law’
November 3, 2017
On October 31st, New York City council finally repealed an outdated cabaret law that has historically been used to target Black and brown establishments. The “no-dancing” law, which was originally enacted in 1926, required bars and other establishments to have a specific license to allow dancing, and was often used to target jazz clubs frequented by patrons of color.
Under the cabaret law, owners of establishments that wish to allow dancing for more than three people were forced to apply for a special “Cabaret License,” an application process that was notoriously difficult and full of bureaucracy. They required approvals from the building and fire departments, surveillance cameras, and had to pay fees of up to $1,000.
According to Thump, the law not only banned dancing, but also limited instruments permitted in unlicensed clubs to strings, keyboards, and electronic sound systems—which left out those specific to jazz like wind, percussion, and brass. It also prohibited more than three musicians from playing at one time, as Harlem jazz bands usually consisted of more.
In 1943, the law was extended to require that all New York City musicians carry a “cabaret card” to perform at bars and clubs, which had to be renewed every two years. Anti-Black authorities, who deny renewal at will, targeted Black musicians especially.”Those who lost their cards included Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, and J.J. Johnson, many of whom were at the peaks of their careers and, after losing their ability to perform in the city, faced decline or ruin,” Thump reports.
The bill to repeal the law was written by Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal, a culture and nightlife advocate for the city.
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