Footloose Forever!

“I could advise you to go to many neighborhoods where it’s permitted as of right,” Mr. Picken said, adding, however, that even those locations are becoming increasingly difficult to get up and strutting these days. “You still have to go before the community board to get your liquor license. And they’re going to say, ‘What are you planning to do?’ You’re going to say, ‘I’m going to have a cabaret.’ And they’re going to say, ‘Oooooh, no.’

“Your safest bet is going to be something like midtown or the Financial District,” Mr. Picken said, “because those areas haven’t been inundated by clubs, even though they have some residential. … From there, I’d have to say, you’re looking at the outer boroughs. And then it becomes, ‘Well, what happened to Manhattan?’”

“You’d have to change the zoning laws,” added Mr. Bookman. “You’d have to do a radical liberalization of the zoning laws, to allow for dance clubs to open in residential areas and residential buildings. Once people start realizing that, that’s usually the end of the conversation. It’s a conversation killer. It’s like trying to make out with a girl and you tell her you’ve got crabbies or whatever—it’s not going any farther than that.

“A big zoning change like that would have to get approved by the City Council,” Mr. Bookman continued. “Every community board in the city would be against it. I mean, as an industry, we’re not stupid enough to even propose such a thing. It would be World War III out there.”

The question of how to resolve the dancing debacle has even stirred dissension within the industry’s own ranks, with Mr. Bookman’s group previously taking heat from bar operators over its opposition to Mayor Bloomberg’s first attempt to revise the rules.

Ironically, it was Mayor Bloomberg’s own administration that was forced to defend the controversial law—the same antiquated mandate he once deemed “craziness”—in 2005, when a group led by civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel sued to overturn the cabaret law and its related zoning requirements on constitutional grounds.

But the founding fathers were apparently less than specific when it came to the right to dance. The courts ultimately upheld the law, with one judge ruling that “[t]he city has a legitimate public interest in regulating bars, clubs and restaurants and the circumstances under which they may offer patrons the opportunity to dance.”

“That was this mayor’s corporation counsel—it’s his lawyers that defended it and won,” noted Mr. Bookman. “So he’s not going to declare victory and now just give up the whole shop.”

Instead of scrapping the law altogether, what Mr. Bookman’s group has long proposed is a sort of exemption for “incidental dancing,” whereby smaller bar operators wouldn’t be held accountable for the shakes and shimmies of a few customers. (Of course, determining a definition for “incidental” would shift the debate to an entirely new level of semantics.)

“I think that’s what the mayor really had in mind, when he was asked to comment on this, is some common-sense way to not make it illegal for a person or two to be dancing in a neighborhood bar, and we agree with him on that,” Mr. Bookman sa
id. “But that does not mean a wholesale changing of the law will allow dance clubs to open anywhere that they please.”

cshott@observer.com

Footloose Forever!