All the Times in American History That Authorities Tried to Stop People From Dancing
The rules and regulations limiting our freedom to move, from the Puritans to the present day.
Diana Ross dancing at Studio 54, c 1979 in New York City. Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images.
In our Dancing vs. The State series, THUMP explores nightlife's complicated relationship to law enforcement, past and present.
America and dancing don't really jive. In fact, the history of nightlife in the US is littered with rules and regulations attempting to curtail the activity. In the hyper-Christian America of the mid-1800s, publicly gyrating with a partner was forbidden in numerous cities and towns; and for much of the 20th century, it was illegal to dance with a member of the same-sex. Even today, regulations like the Cabaret law in New York—used at various points since the 1920s to target people of color and those from the LGBTQ community—still exist. Tracing the instances in which the law butted up against dancing, it becomes apparent that more often than not, enforcement of such legislation constituted a covert attempt to police sexuality and oppress marginalized communities.
In this history, THUMP runs through some of the most egregious examples of American lawmakers and institutions attempted to pull the plug on partying, and how these laws often reflected the morality and prejudices of the times.
17th century Boston minister Increase Mather publishes An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing, an early publication on the evils of dancing. The text reflects the common Puritan belief that dancing is a sinful and promiscuous activity, one that increases the temptation to commit adultery.
Private Texan Baptist school Baylor University opens its doors with a stringent ban on dancing on campus. Like many strict baptists at the time, the university's religious leaders consider dancing to be a sin. It will take 151 years for the school to repel the rule, but when university president Robert Sloan Jr finally lifts the ban in 1996, he warns students not to do anything "obscene or provocative."
Minneapolis' public safety commission shuts down all of city's cabarets and 43 of its saloons, according to local paper the Day. At the time, a "cabaret" is defined as any entertainment establishment that holds performances—such as dances and musical events—before an audience that is seated at tables. Dancing on the part of the audience is prohibited, and it is illegal to sell alcohol to women. If a man buys a beer at a restaurant and shares it with his wife, he can get fined.
During the Jazz Age, numerous states pass "blue laws"—regulations that restrict certain activities on Sundays, including the sale of alcohol, some of which are still in effect today. Atlanta, however, also passes a law preventing dancing on Sundays. "Dancing in any public place on the Lord's Day, commonly known as Sunday, is hereby prohibited," the law reads, as reported by the AP. These laws will be sporadically enforced throughout the 20th century, with an uptick in 1960s.
Prohibition-era New York introduces a law in 1926 requiring any public venue that sells food or drink to obtain a Cabaret License in order for customers to dance there. The pretext behind the regulation is the need to tamp down on speakeasies, but the license is notoriously difficult and expensive to obtain. The legislation ends up throttling New York's already alcohol-barren nightlife scene, and is used to disproportionately target venues servicing communities of color. The rule, often known as "the Cabaret law"—or "no-dancing law"—is still in effect today, and has been enforced with varying degrees of intensity over the years.
Starting in 1943, all musicians who want to perform in New York City are required to obtain and carry a "cabaret card." The authorities, however, are quick to deny or revoke licenses with impunity. A number of iconic jazz musicians—including Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, and Chet Baker—have their cabaret cards revoked during this time. Historians will later cite the manner in which the cabaret card is administered as a key reason why New York's jazz scene floundered in the 1940s. The cabaret card is also used to target African-American musicians by police, who view the young jazzmen of the era as "anti-establishment."
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signs an executive order barring gay people from working in the federal government. This triggers a period known as the "lavender scare," in which the FBI maintains a list of gay Americans who are targeted by police for an array of illegal activities, including cohabiting and kissing in public. Same-sex dancing is also illegal during this time, as it is considered a public display of homosexuality. Clubs that are secretly operating as LGBTQ establishments get into the habit of flipping on a red light in the event of a police raid, so that patrons can switch to a dance partner of the opposite sex before the cops arrive.
While gay bars have never been technically illegal in New York, State Liquor Authority rules dating back to the 1920s make these venues an easy target for the authorities. Throughout the 1960s, police take the regulation against "disorderly" establishments to mean "venues frequented by gay people," and use the legislation as a pretext for harassing LGBTQ bars and clubs.
New York repeals the cabaret card law, though venues are still required to obtain a license.
After 23 students are injured—including one with a broken ankle—at a Dead Kennedys show, the University of Minnesota bans "slam dancing" on campus. An early name for "moshing," slam dancing is described by the AP as concert-goers "bashing each other's bodies, leaping from stages and balconies and even cutting one another with razors and knives." Although moshing continues to be controversial throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there are few attempts by the authorities to outright ban it. Instead, rock musicians speak out against it themselves, including the Smashing Pumpkins, who publicly condemn it after a girl dies at one of their concerts in 1996.
In the rural Christian town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, dancing has been strictly forbidden since 1898, on moral grounds. In 1980, students from Elmore City High School initiate a proposal to overturn the ban so that they can have a senior prom. The community's religious leaders have major objections; one Reverend F.R. Johnson, from a church in a neighboring town, is quoted in People magazine saying, "No good has ever come from a dance. If you have a dance somebody will crash it and they'll be looking for only two things—women and booze. When boys and girls hold each other, they get sexually aroused. You can believe what you want, but one thing leads to another." Despite these objections, the students win the case, and the prom goes ahead. The events go on to inspire the 1984 cult film Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon.
The long-running New York jazz spot Mikell's is shut down after the cops find more than three musicians performing on stage. The cabaret laws are still in effect in the city, but by the mid-1980s, they have been amended to allow music by up to three performers in venues without a license. Because Mikell's doesn't have a cabaret license, and four performers are found on stage, the city pulls the plug on the venue. According to the New York Times, shutdowns like these are rampant at this time, and jazz musicians nickname New York "Trio City."
The small Arkansas city of Trumann lifts a 21-year-old rule prohibiting dancing in venues that serve alcohol. Laws pertaining to dancing are often crafted at the city level, and by the 1990s, many local governments have either repealed them or stopped enforcing them.
At the height of his mayorship, Rudy Giuliani vows to clean up up New York with his infamous "broken windows" policing strategy, which takes a zero-tolerance stance on low-level crimes. He also revives the Cabaret Laws, which by this point have fallen dormant. In 1997, the now-shuttered but once notorious bike club Hogs and Heifers is busted for bartenders dancing on the bar. The bar's management makes signs that read "No Dancing," and pastes them around the venue. The sign goes on to become an icon of New York nightlife under Giuliani.
In the space of one month, police raid a string of Manhattan nightclubs, shuttering five on drug charges. Club owners, sensitive to the authorities' periodic targeting of their venues, see the move as a concerted crackdown on nightlife. City officials deny this, telling the New York Times the raids are a result of complaints from local residents.
San Francisco's police department tries to quash illegal after-hours clubs after residents in the Excelsior District start complaining about parties in abandoned storefronts. San Francisco's' authorities, like those in other parts of the country, find themselves embattled with a burgeoning "pop-up club" scene, a term sometimes used to denote unlicensed raves going down in abandoned buildings. In the absence of laws directly regulating these events, the San Francisco authorities seek to clamp-down on them by catching venue owners on other charges, such as permitting unlicensed alcohol sales on the premises.
Following the deadly fire at the Ghost Ship DIY venue in Oakland at the end of 2016, police in Oakland issue a directive instructing officers to report any illegal raves to their supervisors and live/work spaces in the city. Since the fire, DIY venue owners and promoters across the country have feared being shut down or otherwise policed by the authorities. THUMP is currently tracking these closures. You can learn more about the ongoing project here.