Dance, dance, dance

The city that never sleeps had an old dancing ban in place, from 1926 – until the current mayor overturned it. We visit some night owls as they ­celebrate their first summer of freedom.

published by Lufthansa Magazine, August 2018, print and online >>

This is where your wildest fantasies can come true,” says the blue-haired man, looking deep into my eyes. Behind us, a dozen of his friends who have squeezed into this trailer-sized space with us sing along to the music at the top of their lungs. Boxes on the walls bear curious, sometimes enticing inscriptions: “boringest panties,” “dark sparkle,” “iridescent collection.” So what’s his wildest fantasy tonight? He pulls out a green mask: “Bikini dancers with dinosaur heads! You’ll see!”
Anya Sapozhnikova, 32, draws us deeper and deeper into the House of Yes. The air is warm and humid from the 600 dancing bodies. Anya doesn’t get far without being stopped: Everyone knows the petite brunette and everyone wants to give her a hug. The club is her home. Anya is its co-founder and co-owner; she books acts, sews costumes and performs as a trapeze artist. “We wanted to create a space where everything is possible – that’s how the House of Yes got its name,” she explains in the back rooms, where it’s not so loud and you can see that this avant-garde club was once a laundromat. The first House of Yes burned down, and she had to move out of the second when the landlord doubled the rent. The third iteration has been here in Brooklyn’s attractive Bushwick neighborhood for two and a half years.

“New York is a damn hard place, that’s why these things happening didn’t seem like a devastating blow, just normal,” explains Anya. “We felt that if something’s awesome, it’s going to go bad eventually.” She draws deeply on her cigarette and heads back into the tumult.
The House of Yes is as free, sexy and creative as the rest of the city would like to be if it could. Thanks to complex licensing laws, the city that famously never sleeps has been making life difficult for clubs and bars for many years. More than 80 of them were forced to close in the last decade alone, including institutions like Glasslands and Shea Stadium in Williamsburg, and latterly the Silent Barn, also in Brooklyn. What hastened their demise was the 1926 cabaret law, which banned dancing at venues without a proper license (that cost roughly 100 000 dollars). Less than a hundred of New York’s 22 000 bars and clubs could afford to pay it, so the rest operated illegally.
Dancing was only allowed in clubs that had paid an expensive licensing fee.
“We just diverted attention away from our place,” says John Barclay, 36, from his basement office with the palm-tree photo wallpaper a couple of streets away, where we can hear the pounding bass from his Bossa Nova Civic Club upstairs and the occasional thunder of a passing subway train. “We put the address of OMG Pizza on our flyer, a pizza joint right up the block.” Nobody would ever go to that rundown place to party, so guests got the hint and the trick worked – until a couple of years ago. “It was around midnight and as always, packed and loud,” Barclay says. He glances up at the screens on the wall every couple of seconds as if he’s afraid it will happen again. “A dozen officers stormed into the club, all wearing headlamps, and ordered us to turn the light on and the music off at once.” To them, the case was clear: They had caught 150 young people redhanded – in the act of dancing.
Selling alcohol was illegal all over the U.S. during Prohibition in the early 20th century, but only New York City also brought in a cabaret law, making it illegal to dance, too. The city administrators used the law to keep new and unfamiliar activities under control, such as blacks and whites enjoying themselves together in Harlem jazz clubs in the 1930s and events put on by gay and lesbian groups, who were organizing in the 1970s. Between 1940 and 1967, artists had to register for a cabaret card, which was refused to anyone who had previously attracted police attention. In the 1990s, this applied to all the clubs which then mayor Rudolph ¬Giuliani thought had a negative influence on “quality of life.” ¬Even today, the city authorities have the right to impose fines for overly loud music, serving alcohol without a license and other “violations of quality of life.”
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” says Thelonious Sphere “T. S.” Monk. He pushes open the iron door of Minton’s Playhouse and looks around the jazz bar. Monk is a wiry man in his late sixties who looks elegant even in a baseball cap and checkered shirt. He runs his hand lightly over the black-and-white photos on the wall: “Dizzy, Charlie, Teddy, Billie, Miles. They came and went here when I was a child.” He stops in front of a picture of a young man who looks like he could be his son. “That’s a great suit, isn’t it? My mother made it. We didn’t have any money but my father knew how to make a good impression.” That father , the legendary piano player Thelonious Monk, passed in 1982, but he is immortalized on every wall at Minton’s. This is where he invented bebop in the 1940s and quietly revolutionized jazz. “Jazz wasn’t background music then,” T. S. Monk recalls, “it was music for the masses, and people went wild dancing – like they do to hip-hop and Beyoncé today.” This was a thorn in the side of the authorities, and they used the cabaret law to prevent well-known musicians from performing. Once, Thelonious Monk and a friend were stopped by the police, who found drugs in the friend’s car. Although they could prove no connection between Monk and the drugs, his license to perform was confiscated and he went to jail.
The ban on dancing would still be in place if it weren’t for Andrew Muchmore, an attorney – blue navy suit, side parting. Muchmore earns during the day what he loses during the night with his dream of a neighborhood club like the kind in his hometown of New Orleans. When Muchmore was ticketed for allowing illegal dancing, he challenged the law instead of paying the fine. “I could hardly wait to cross-examine the policeman who had ticketed me,” Muchmore says, laughing. “‘What exactly did you see?’ I wanted to ask him, ‘was it swaying or rocking back and forth? Did the guests dance the jitterbug? Or maybe the funky chicken? Please demonstrate what you saw’.” But he never got to ask. The court dropped the charges, supposedly because the file had gone missing. But Muchmore didn’t let the matter go. In 2014, he filed a lawsuit against the city of New York, arguing that in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the cabaret law infringed on the freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution – and he won.
Muchmore was backed by a broad citizens’ movement. Club owners John Barclay and Anya Sapozhnikova formed the Dance Liberation Network along with hundreds of other creatives. A young New York politician introduced a bill to eliminate the law. “Many of the other City Council members thought I was taking things too far,” recalls Rafael Espinal. But in November 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio overturned the law and appointed a night mayor to mediate between the clubs, the city and the residents of New York.
The line for the restroom in the House of Yes is long. A friendly dinosaur dancer gives the man in front of him a shoulder massage. Cocktails are handed to those waiting in line. The bathroom walls glitter and sparkle with sequins, mirror mosaics and strings of beads – all gold. A man in mostly just a feather boa fixes his makeup beside a unicorn and two women with chrysanthemums in their hair. “They were the most tropical flowers we could find,” one of them says in German. It turns out she’s from Leipzig, over in New York studying international law and living a few blocks from the club. This is her fourth time here so far, she says, “and it won’t be my last.” “I don’t know any clubs like this in Germany,” she adds. “There’s no other place like this in New York either,” her friend says.
The electro beats grow more insistent. Suddenly, they are everywhere high above us in the spotlight: the acrobats and go-go dancers for which the House of Yes is famous. They writhe in metal cages, swing gracefully above the dancers’ heads and crawl across the scaffolding on the wall. A go-go dancer winks at me. Anya? Anya. Barefoot, stunning in a neon-yellow, tiger-¬striped leotard with pink feathers, she hooks in her feet and bends backwards until her hair touches the bar.
On my way home I remember something Espinal said: “When the nightlife dies, New York loses its soul.” For decades, he and his friends watched clubs close down and musicians and artists move away. “The city made it hard for them, but those days are now over.” Midtown Manhattan is nearly empty just before dawn. The few late homecomers and early commuters on the subway are wrapped up tight against the cold and disdainful looks. I notice something lying at my feet. It’s a pink feather.