Start Dancing Again! There’s Hope For New York City Nightlife

Michael Musto on whether the repeal of New York's archaic cabaret law will bring everyone back to the dance floor.

As the Chicken Little of NYC nightlife, I’ve always been the one to shriek, “The sky is falling! The glitter ball has crashed! The scene is dead!” But the people who deride me for doing so usually come around to admitting that I was onto something.

That was especially the case back in the 1990s, when New York City clubbing was decimated by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign, which ignored the fact that nightlife is a huge part of the city’s quality of life. Sanitizing the town in hopes of attracting more monied people and tourists, Rudy set to work having clubs demonized, raided, and shuttered on a regular basis, as bottle-service lounges rose up in lieu of the waning dance clubs and I kept screaming (in print) for survival.

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Mayor Rudy Giuliani in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 1997

Worst of all, Guiliani dug up an archaic 1926 Cabaret law that said boites can’t have dancing without a cabaret license, and hammered clubowners and clubgoers with it like the angsty minister in Footloose. (According to The New York Times, the law was also once used to keep musicians away, resulting in talents like Billie Holiday and Ray Charles being unable to perform in certain spots.)

In the ’90s, suddenly, if you were in a club that didn’t happen to have such a license (which is pricey and very involved to attain), the sight of someone even just shimmying in place to the music sent shivers down everyone’s spine, as we silently screamed, “We’re gonna get shut down!” You learned to sit down a lot and kind of shake your leg a little to the beat, without letting it get noticed that much, especially by someone who might look even remotely official.

Well, finally, that antiquated law has been repealed! Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal brought the reversal to the City Council yesterday, and it handily passed. Mayor Bill de Blasio (who hasn’t aggressively utilized the cabaret law anyway) supported the law’s demolition, though his team wanted to make sure its security regulations would stay—and that’s great. We nightlife people want clubs to be safe—though mainly we want there to be clubs to begin with!

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Brooklyn City Councilman Rafael Espinal

This is heartening news for a scene that’s long felt the no-dancing chill, resulting in at least a dozen stand-still gay bars in Hell’s Kitchen alone. Adding to this development, de Blasio announced in June that a New York City Ambassador of Nightlife will be appointed in order to mediate between the club world and the government. I was extremely skeptical about this at first because I don’t trust political interference in clubbing, and besides, in trying to appease the community boards, the Ambassador might end up squelching more nightlife than they encourage. But with the cabaret law having been blissfully rescinded, I feel more confident that de Blasio’s administration means well (I might even vote for his re-election next Tuesday) and maybe the hiree will be true to the job description and actually try to help nightlife thrive and grow.

The sad thing is that the advance in dancing comes at a time when other serious challenges to NYC club life have made things as awkward as a prom during a blackout. Manhattan real estate values and the cost of doing a club there have risen so sharply that an extraordinary amount of the nightlife has moved to other boroughs, especially Brooklyn.

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A dance contest at the Limelight in 1974

Furthermore, the aforementioned community boards have risen in power and sometimes they show glimmers of homophobia and racism in their desire to shut down certain places that emit what they call “the noise” and what we call “the fun.” What’s more, the Internet long ago put a damper on a lot of nightlife by making it possible for people to socialize without even leaving the living room.

And nowadays, hookup apps take a lot of the sexual urgency away from clubbing; part of the fun of dancing was never knowing who you might end up partnering with on the dance floor, and for the weekend (or life). Meanwhile, zoning laws still prohibit dancing in certain areas of NYC, so those will have to be eventually changed along with the cabaret law for this breakthrough to have full effect.

But still, the allure of dancing has a pull that can defy all odds. I realized that when Ladyfag’s weekly party called Battle Hymn (below) drew throngs of gays and admirers for over a year (until this summer), all rhythmically melding to the DJ’s hypnotic sounds. The event (at the club Flash Factory) was clearly fulfilling a serious hunger for dance floor action. When that beat calls, hopefully millennials will learn to leave the house, put down their phones, take their eyes off the video screens, and let their bodies writhe to the music without fear.

Now where do I sign up for that ambassador job?

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto