Everybody Dance Now! A Musical Celebration Of New York's Cabaret Law Repeal
During one of my first visits to New York in the early '80s, I was invited to a "private party." I was told not tell anyone about it or even reveal where it would be. So — of course — I went, intrigued by the clandestine, members-only vibe.
It was held in a dinky basement somewhere on the Lower East Side, where some guy had set up his home stereo in a corner while drinks were sold in small plastic cups for five bucks (cash only). There was a killer mix of disco (the '80s, remember?) and tracks like Led Zepplin's "Kashmir."
Only many years later did I discover that these ad-hoc party spaces existed because it was against the law to let people dance in commercial establishments without a license, due to the so-called "Cabaret Law," which had been in effect for decades.
That law was abolished recently by the the New York City Council. It was originally intended to keep an eye on speakeasies during Prohibition but it became a tool of those who preferred to keeps the races separated in jazz clubs in Harlem and other minority neighborhoods. Then it became a source of revenue for the city and the bane of existence for bar and nightclub owners who could be shut down if someone dared to shake their booty in the open.
Imagine that: for 91 years dancers in NYC were restricted in enjoying the joys of moving to songs that shaped the sound of 20th century American popular culture.
DJ and producer Louie Vega in fact did just that. Vega compiled 91 songs, 10 from each decade going back to the '20s, and created a special Spotify playlist called "Dancing in New York 1926-2017." (You can scroll to the bottom of our interview to hear it.) Vega was one-half of the groundbreaking dance crew Masters At Work, so he knows a thing or two about moving people onto a dance floor.
Felix Contreras, Alt.Latino : How does what we dance to reflect our life and times?
Louie Vega: What we dance to becomes associated with a time in your life — a song can instantly trigger a memory that's decades old. Dancing does that too, it can bring a song to life, and triggers memories and emotions. Dance floors are places where you share unifying moments with everyone and anyone beside you, or even just lose it by yourself in your own confined space. Those moments will stick with you forever. The soundtracks to dance floors are directly impacted by social context, as they are places where community forms in response to external factors, a place to escape oppression and find solidarity. That's why they are such powerful spaces. I have 35 years of memories dancing and listening to music, magical memories of all manner of dance floors — clubs, house parties or family living rooms.
How did popular dancing define certain populations? Like Afro-Cuban big band dancing, which is in your family background. How did that help you discover your cultural roots?
In many genres of music, it's the dancers and the bands that led the way with respect to style, fashion and dance steps. Music labels like Motown and Fania Records created their own dance movements that burgeoned out into wider music and fashion scenes. Each scene has their own little dance and style... these start on the dance floor and ripple out from there into the wider culture.
Upbringing is vital in shaping musical taste. When you are young, you listen to what your parents are listening to. It starts there. Then your horizons expand as you grow older and experience life. My uncle being an artist on Fania Records; my dad being an accomplished Latin and jazz tenor sax player; the music my parents played at home and what I heard on radio; my sisters dancing in clubs like the Paradise Garage, The Loft in New York City... all helped connect my cultural and familial roots with dance music. I was pretty lucky! Once I started my record collection, it opened a whole new door as far as my knowledge of dance music.
Despite the law, people danced. Doesn't it sounds like the construct of a movie? "No one is going to keep me from dancing, dammit!"
What do people do when you tell them not to do something? They do it! We all need to dance and lift our spirits, feel free and release. Nothing can stop that. It's crazy to think how long this law endured, how much history passed through New York in that time. All those dance floors, all that music, all those dancers. It would be a hell of a movie... it's a hell of a soundtrack!
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