Footloose Forever!

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been talking about doing away with the city’s ancient draconian cabaret law for years now, and Robert Bookman, for one, seems frankly sick of hearing about it.

“It’s a nonreality story,” said Mr. Bookman—a rather curious position for a guy who speaks on behalf of affected cabaret operators citywide.

The oft-quoted lawyer represents the New York Nightlife Association, an industry group whose many members regularly wrangle with the dubious law, which has regulated dancing, of all things, at the city’s various bars, restaurants and nightclubs for the better part of the past century.

Under the law, first enacted back in 1926, places that permit dancing are required to get a special license; those that don’t risk getting fined or even shut down virtually any time patrons start bobbing their heads to the jukebox.

“The mayor’s heart is in the right place,” said Mr. Bookman, responding to a July 14 report in the Daily News that Hizzoner was yet again tap-dancing around the issue, much like he did back in 2004, when proposed alternate regulations sparked ever sharper criticism from the industry.

“I think he thinks the idea of ‘dance police’ is silly, and it is,” Mr. Bookman said. “But the reality is, the cabaret law is not the problem.”

Reportedly, less than 200 venues in the city are currently licensed to allow dancing—down dramatically from some 12,000 in the early 1960s. But Mr. Bookman asserted that changing the law isn’t likely to spark a sudden boom in new discotheque development.

“If you repeal the cabaret law today, you would not increase the places where you can dance in the city of New York tomorrow by one,” he said. “The situation would not change at all because the issue is not getting a cabaret license. It’s not hard getting a cabaret license. Nor is there a restriction on the number of them, like taxi medallions. What’s hard is finding a location where the zoning allows for eating and drinking with dancing and entertainment—that’s where it’s restricted.”


INDEED, ZONING AND dancing have been intimately intertwined since 1961, when the old cabaret law, originally aimed at regulating jazz clubs in Harlem, was modified to restrict new dance clubs to the city’s commercial and manufacturing areas only. In 1989, the city’s tightening of zoning regs made the rule even more restrictive, as formerly dance-friendly neighborhoods, including the rapidly gentrifying areas of Soho and Tribeca, became more residential and effectively jig-free. At least for new operators.

The increasing encroachment of residential development into old manufacturing zones in recent years has only made it more difficult for dance-club owners to find legitimate places for patrons to prance around without worrying about the regulatory repercussions. Even swaths of densely liquor-licensed West Chelsea have recently been rezoned to allow for more housing, less hip-twisting.

“Those areas still exist,” said Alex Picken of Picken Real Estate and Nightlife Brokerage, who specializes in sales and leasing to bar, restaurant and club owners.

Footloose Forever!