When George Clinton wrote of a future where there was "no boomboxes and no live bands, they're all illegal," he was intoning his long-standing
paranoia of a future without funk. But his anthem of contraband
dancing, from 1996's The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational
Mothership, described a future that was very nearly the present in
New York City.
Under a little enforced ordinance that dates back to 1926 - at the time
aimed at Harlem jazz clubs - dancing is illegal in New York in clubs
which haven't paid for a seperate license to allow ass-moving. The
original law also required that clubs with dancing employ musicians of
"good character," a clause that was removed in the 1960s, a few years
after the act was amended to allow only cabaret licenses in commercial
and manufacturing zones.
The demonization of dancing stems from an era of puritan legislation
(sex, of course, leads to dancing) and, it has been suggested, from
efforts to put a rein on so-called “race music.” In prewar Chicago, it
was illegal to play saxophone after dark, and likewise New York’s
ordinance against dancing put a damper on Harlem nightlife, and left
jazz as the sit-politely music we listen to today.
Whatever the roots, New York City is now taking measures to allow good
people to mambo, cha cha, salsa or tango, to break a sweat, breakdance,
step in time or cut a rug. In November, New York Consumer Affairs
Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra announced an effort to repeal the laws
that since 1999 have been increasingly enforced by a squad of "dance
police" that would make Dr. Funkenstein shudder.
"They have to expend resources and energy telling people not to dance,"
Dykstra said at a press conference at the Knitting Factory. "They don't
have any community problems, they don't have violations. But people
can't shake their booties when they come to the Knitting Factory. And
that strikes us as a little odd."
As the Knitting Factory has looked to build its audience from the
sit-politely crowd to younger rock fans, the boogie ban has become a
concern to the club's new management.
“The new DCA proposal is an elegant solution to a longstanding and
seemingly intractable problem,” Knitting Factory President Jared
Hoffman said in a prepared statement. “The real issue is minimizing
community impact. It does not make sense for the city to legislate
what types of music are acceptable. Some dance clubs are operated
poorly and have considerable community issues, but many are operated
impeccably. Many rock and roll or hip hop venues have impact issues
and many don’t. It’s not about the style of music, it’s about the
But some are questioning the new legislation being promoted by the
City/Knit partnership. Members of the New York Nightlife Association, a
group of club and restaurant owners represented by former New York
Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel, have challenged
the new ordinance's swapping of regulations on dance for restrictions
The Department of Consumer Affairs plans to "focus on noise and not
dancing," Siegel told The Village Voice. But they haven't
actually addressed the zoning laws already on the books. "I hope this
isn't a three-card monte," he said. "We won't have Consumer Affairs
being the dance police but maybe the buildings department will. And no
one can give me a straight answer."
In a city as densely populated as New York, noise restrictions are a
necessity. The recent explosion of clubs in the Williamsburg section of
Brooklyn is just another part of a long history of venues opening in
abandoned and industrial parts of town where there are few neighbors to
disturb. But regulating noise has become a cottage industry for the
city, and has only been exacerbated by the no-smoking ordinance. With
smokers forced to stand outside, noise complaints have increased, and
the Knitting Factory is a prime example of a place forced to keep watch
on its patrons even after they leave.
A stricter noise ordinance would also be easier to enforce than the
dancing ban: While police can't necessarily see dancing from outside,
they can hear the music. And more violations, of course, would mean
more money for a city so in need of new revenue that it is considering
selling ad space on its trash cans. If the end result is dancing being
allowed in clubs that are forced to keep the volume at a minimum, the
victory might seem a hollow one. Until then, we can only suggest that
clubbers heed another of Clinton's anthems: Shit, goddamn, get off your
asses and jam.