My name is Dr. Sally Sommer and I am a professor of dance history and theory, a dance writer and a filmmaker. I would like to address what I consider the underlying question concerning the latest ruling upholding the 1926 Cabaret Law, reasoning, “social dancing was not an expressive activity protected by the 1st Amendment.”
First if social dance is not an expressive activity, what is it? The entire world dances. Dancing is an essential cultural identifier: “I dance this way because I belong and come from this country, this group, this family, or even this neighborhood.” Dancing is product exchanged and exported throughout the world to everyone’s advantage. It is system of nonverbal communication, embodied knowledge, passed on from person to person, as basic as the body-to-body communication between mother and infant. What happens is that we just grow up. Then we start dancing, keeping up that nonverbal communication with more people than mom.
There is no legal definition of dancing. In the most general definitions, which try to be as simple and all-encompassing as possible, dance has been defined as “rhythmic movement performed to music” or “formal mobilized rhythmic movement.”
Other “rhythmic movements done to music” or “mobilized movements” would be parades, marching bands, football games, half-time entertainments, even church choirs. All of these movement-based practices done to music are protected under the First Amendment because they represent instances of freedom of expression. Why are these activities protected and social dancing is not?
The 1926 Cabaret Law had nothing to do with dancing and a lot to do with misperceptions about what dancing might cause. It was assumed that dancing could lead to immoral sexual behaviors; it encouraged drinking and drug taking that ended up in addiction and addicts. And, as an uncontrolled large group activity, dancing could potentially devolve into chaos, violence and murder. The underlying assumption is that dancing arouses destructive emotions and actions. For exactly the same reason the waltz was banned in the late 1700s in certain European cities and countries; starting in 1739 in colonial America, Africans and African Americans were forbidden to congregate and dance because it led to insurrection and slave uprisings; in the 1920s and 30s the Charleston was banned in several US cities; in the 1950s the police cracked down on Rock n Roll in New Jersey.
But in NYC, since 1926, dancing (whether the waltz, the Charleston, the Turkey Trot, the lindy hop, RnR, or any variety of hip hop dancing and house dancing have been banned regularly, using the Cabaret Law to shut down bars and nightclubs. The real issue is not dancing, but noise, safety, drugs and real estate development.
Dancing itself is not noisy; it’s very quiet. Loud music can and should be controlled by the laws already in place. Drugs: The drug laws should be enforced. Real Estate is the actual culprit. Manhattan clubs were shut down to make way for high-rise development, which paralleled city intentions to improve “quality of life” and gentrify Manhattan. The outdated 1926 Cabaret Laws were handy to use. The proof surrounds us: Look at what has happened by 2017 in Soho, NoHo, Tribeca, Nolita, the Lower East Side and Westside river developments. Clubs that can afford Cabaret licenses are the most expensive, less about dancing than about seeing and being seen in the right places. The serious dancers I know don’t have the money to go there and they don’t buy high-priced drinks. Serious dancers don’t care about who sees them. Serious dancers go to dance and go home. For them, dancing IS their quality of life. For me, as a writer, as a professor, as a filmmaker, dancing is what makes life worthwhile. My question is: Why are dancers and dancing being penalized? They are not the problem.