“Ecclesiastes assures us… that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to laugh… and a time to weep. A time to mourn… and there is a time to dance,” Ren says dramatically in the 1984 movie Footloose. “And there was a time for this law, but not anymore. See, this is our time to dance. It is our way of celebrating life. It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.”
When you think of a town that has banned dancing, you automatically think of Footloose. But what most people don’t know is that similar legislation has been on the books in New York City for the last century. And in the real law, Ren’s convincing line, “And there was a time for this law, but not anymore,” would be highly contested.
The Cabaret law (which bans dancing in any establishment without a Caberet License) was enacted specifically in 1926 with the intention of cracking down on the African American jazz clubs in Harlem. The original law not only banned dancing but banned jazz instruments, too. It also prohibited more than three musicians from playing at a time in unlicensed clubs.
Later, in the 1940’s, the law was expanded to include artists needing a “Cabaret Card” to perform at bars and clubs. To get such a card, musicians had to go to the police department to be fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated about their personal lives. The cards had a two year renewal process and authorities could revoke or deny at their discretion. Drug use, arrests, and homosexuality were all acceptable reasons to revoke a card. During its history, African American musicians were targeted at much higher rates than other races with the requirement, and many famous musicians had their cabaret cards revoked, including: Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis.