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New Yorkers Can Now Put On Dancing Shoes And Legally Get 'Footloose' In Public Spaces

A sign to repeal NYC's Cabaret Law is seen posted at the Brooklyn venue Secret Project Robot on Oct. 20  in New York.
A sign to repeal NYC's Cabaret Law is seen posted at the Brooklyn venue Secret Project Robot on Oct. 20 in New York.

In the movie Footloose, protagonist Ren McCormack fights against a draconian dance ban in a small town. Against all odds, students at Ren's high school end up organizing their prom and dance the night away.

People in New York City will now be able to dance the night away as well — without any legal restrictions.

Earlier this week, the New York City Council voted to repeal a 91-year-old law that banned dancing at most city public spaces that sell food or drinks.

Andrew Muchmore, lawyer and owner of Muchmore's bar and music venue, was cited in 2013 under this law by the city for "unlawful swaying."

"We had a noise complaint from a neighbor for people speaking too loudly on the sidewalk, and when police came out, they issued two summons: one for violation of the NYC noise code and one for the violation of the Cabaret Law," Muchmore told NPR's Scott Simon.

The now-repealed Cabaret Law prohibited people from dancing in any room, place or space in New York City, that lacked a "cabaret license." This, Muchmore says, was problematic for quite a few reasons.

"That license is very difficult to obtain and was only possessed by about 100 bars and restaurants out of one 25,000 in New York," Muchmore says. The vagueness of the term "dancing" was also cause for concern, he adds. Is nodding your head considered dancing? Tapping your toes? Swaying from side to side?

The law was enacted in 1926 during Prohibition and was enforced sporadically through the years.

Journalist and filmmaker Ina Sotirova produced a film called freedom2dance, which looks into the history of the Cabaret Law and its implications.

"It's really understood and believed that [the Cabaret Law] was implemented in order to keep white people and black people from intermingling and dancing together in Harlem jazz bars," Sotirova told NPR.

According to Sotirova, the law has been historically enforced in black establishments in New York City.

Andrew Muchmore, a lawyer and owner of <em>Muchmore's </em>in New York City, was cited in 2015 for violating the city's Cabaret Law, prohibiting dancing without a license. The New York City council voted this week to repeal the 91-year old Cabaret Law.
/ Courtesy of Andrew Muchmore
Andrew Muchmore, a lawyer and owner of <em>Muchmore's </em>in New York City, was cited in 2015 for violating the city's Cabaret Law, prohibiting dancing without a license. The New York City council voted this week to repeal the 91-year old Cabaret Law.

Originally, the law did not just target those who were dancing, but went after musicians as well. Licenses were also required for three or more musicians to play. The license requirement for musicians was done away with in 1988, but the dancing ban continued to be enforced.

In Sotirova's documentary, she shows that Mayor Rudy Giuliani's city government enforced the dancing ban at a heightened level, citing it was required for the safety of patrons.

"This law, instead of making safer for dancing in New York — it's actually creating and amplifying the need for illegal, unregulated and often unsafe spaces to go dancing," Sotirova says.

The recent repeal bill was pushed by city council member Rafael L. Espinal. On Tuesday, all 41 council members present voted in favor of the repeal, except one. This repeal can release some of the stress various establishments without the cabaret licenses have been placed under.

"The repeal also means that New Yorkers' freedom of movement and expression can never again be curtailed because of a law based in racist ideology," Sotirova says. "Dancing is a primordial and universal language that cannot and should not be controlled by the state."

To celebrate the repeal of the dance ban, Muchmore will be celebrating accordingly.

"We're going to throw a dance party this Saturday night — our first ever," he told Weekend Edition.

Hopefully their dance party is as fun as Footloose's final dance scene at the prom.

Eric McDaniel and Ed McNulty produced and edited the audio for this interview.

Jose Olivares is an NPR Digital News intern.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.