Paying the Price of Dancing

24 02 2007

By Derek Beres

I remember the first time I even heard of a cabaret license, in the mid-’90s while at a club on Bleecker that my friend was performing at. I had just started making the commute from Rutgers to Manhattan for music shows, introduced to NYC nightlife in some rather incredible ways: Tool and Nirvana, two separate nights. This was a much more low-key event, and as my friend’s band was taking stage I looked over the bar and saw a sign that said “No Dancing.” I thought that was odd, but given it was a rock show, I let it slide. I did, however, ask someone what it meant, and then found out that in order to dance in New York you needed a license.

I’ll admit I’m not the best at discerning the validity of law. To me, a true law is instinctual: you inherently know whether something is right or not by an inner feeling, not what someone somewhere tells you has to be the case. This is not to say instincts are always the best avenue, but when it comes to something as primitive and tribal as dancing – an act as instinctual as the ability to create language through sound or put food into our mouths – this seems a no-brainer. Or so I thought.

Many years ago as an entertainment writer in Princeton, I remember a law being passed in town that banned hackey sacks from public areas. When I heard about it I had the same sinking feeling in my gut as the cabaret law. My editor at the time put it into perspective. He said “Some councilman’s wife was probably walking on Nassau St and some kids were hacking and it flew from the circle and hit her. So she made sure it was outlawed." I laughed when he said that, but part of me cried. To think a three-inch ball made of cloth and beads could cause a serious social disruption, even in a pristine village like Princeton, irked me.

Reading this NY Post article yesterday irked me as well.  A recent lawsuit and request to overturn city statute regarding the need for a license (an expensive one at that) to allow clubs to allow dancers was ruled out. This line sums it: "Recreational dancing is not a form of expression protected by the federal or state constitutions," the state Appellate Division ruled. The funny thing is, I didn't know dancers need protection by any governing body. In fact, I would think dancing is the antithesis to such stringency, which may well be the reason for the law in the first place.

This is another example of a law that had no place in our culture in the first place, and yet it persists. If a plant grows with or without our intervention, we can imprison people for harvesting it. Yet if that same person is ill with a serious disease and is a law-abiding citizen that pays taxes, our government will allow pharmaceutical companies to charge absurd amounts of money for their drug. They suddenly take a hands-off policy, when the reality is that that form of business serves their interests. Letting people move their bodies in rhythm to the music around them, apparently, does not serve them.  Which only once again shows why these forces are out of touch with the rhythms of their culture and the world around them, and how their stubborness reveals a rigidity that no longer serves our interests.

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