No matter how the law tries to pose it, behind any dance ban is a bonafide hater hatin’, as was the case in Kevin Bacon’s 1984 breakout Footloose. In the film, Bacon cooks as Ren McCormack, a Chicago teen who moves to a tiny Midwestern town where John Lithgow’s evangelist Reverend Moore has convinced local politicians to illegalize boogieing. Such a dork!
Of course, Bacon ends up macking Moore’s daughter, Ariel (Lori Singer) in a dance montage to Kenny Loggins‘ title tune, convinces the school board to hold a prom and, during the last dance, gets Lithgow to dance with his own wife (Diane Wiest): Happily ever after, the end! But that’s that Hollywood stuff; no hoedown happy endings in the real world — a number of legit laws against dancing actually still exist in America.
The 11th commandment
The roots of the Footloose plot are legit. During the 1830s, in remarkably lame pockets of Oklahoma, powerful religious zealots outlawed not only dancing but the playing of any musical instruments, including the fiddle, which regional churches called “the Devil’s box.” As an end-around, communities began to host public events called “play parties,” impromptu gatherings where citizens of all ages came together to sing and move their bodies in vigorous, yet decidedly non-dance, ways.
During what resembled half-assed rural aerobics classes, play partiers performed stiff, choreographed movements to European folk songs, including the ageless chant-and-clap routines — “Skip to My Lou,” “London Bridge,” “Pop Goes the Weasel” (and not the 3rd Bass version) — we all learned as kids. As 20th century America loosened its collective britches, dance laws relaxed, play parties dwindled and, by the 1950s, mass Lou-skipping and weasel-popping had retreated to music education classrooms.
Life in New York is no cabaret
In modern New York, it’s apparently legal for teens to scream “SHOWTIME!” and do Cirque du Soleil flips inside of packed, speeding subway cars. However, a mere six years ago, a Prohibition-era social cramp called the New York City Cabaret Law made it illegal to dance anywhere in the five boroughs that sold food or drink — unless the seller held a rare and expensive “cabaret license.”
Enacted in 1926 as a means to bust speakeasies, the Cabaret Law was all but ignored after the Rudy Giuliani regime (in 2016, The New York Times reported that only 97 of an estimated 25,000 food and drink venues held a license), though the city government kept the law on the books as a back-pocket means to serve uncooperative clubs and event promoters with crippling fines and shutdowns.
In 2016, however, then Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal argued a bill into existence that restored sanity and allowed backsides to shake as they wished, arguing that the ban pushed dancers from safe, regulated spaces into potentially hazardous underground gatherings.
Just keep your pants on
Many policies banning dancing and drinking in the same establishment seem to be based upon the idea that the combo may lead to people getting naughty in booths and bathrooms…which is, well, a correct assumption, but not one that necessarily calls for a punishable edict. All the same, and though New York untied their frisky citizens’ shoes, dance bans that feel designed to prevent the hot-and-heavy still exist.
In Helena, Montana, no woman may go Coyote Ugly and dance on the bar in a tank top and cutoffs, nor may any man replicate the classic SNL Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze Chippendales skit — laws are laws, people, and to dance on any platform inside a Helena watering hole while not wearing at least three pounds and two ounces of clothing is a violation (though nothing in the code precludes dancing on tables buck naked save for heavyweight hunting boots).
One antiquated Delaware law may involve a drinks-plus-dance-may-equal-no-pants thoughtway, but can make you feel drunk trying to decipher it. Ready? Alcohol may not be served in any type of business while dancing is occurring; nightclubs that allow dancing, deemed “dance halls,” may not serve alcohol at all, no matter when the dancing is occurring; and nightclubs that choose to serve alcohol may do so any time, as long as dancing never occurs (which would technically make them a “dance hall”).
Then there’s Lynden, Washington, a remarkably bland place five miles south of the Canadian border, where drinking and dancing may not occur in any place of business. Whether the law revolves around the fear of hefty Canuck lumberjacks in search of forbidden weekends with small-town girls (far-flung, but possible), or respects the fact that Lynden is built near the sacred burial grounds of the Nooksack Indian village Squahalish (doubtful, but true), it still stands and is regularly enforced as of 2022: No boozin’ where you’re groovin’ in Lynden!
A little out of touch
Of all dance bans, Utah’s just may be the stodgiest. Forget drinking and dancing; to merely embrace while dancing is a crime. What is referred to as “daylight” — defined as a full arm’s pass worth of room — must remain between partners on a dance floor (because obviously, ribcage contact is bound to sow the ice-hot wrath of God upon the Mormon state, if not the entire world).
Some bans exist not by the heavy hand of Uncle Sam, but by the closed minds of school board members seeking to subvert young hormones. Such is the case in Purdy, Missouri, where dancing on school property is strictly prohibited. In 1990, this Purdy-pooper withstood an appeal in the state’s Supreme Court, filed by a group of families who claimed the ban was religiously motivated, and thereby in violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
For the health of self and country
Some dance bans are motivated by more than just a blind fear of sex, and even carry conceivable reasoning. In Washington State, it is illegal to engage in marathon dance competitions — presumably to prevent a participant from forgetting they are 57 and losing consciousness after jogging in place to EDM for hours straight in order to raise money for charity research. Maybe that, but the foundations of the law are based upon Depression-era dance marathons held in the state that actually bore casualties. For similar concerns, no one within the bounds of Washington, D.C. may legally dance for more than 12 hours total in any 24 hour period.
In Massachusetts, a seriously extreme can’t-dance policy exists to guard the sanctified American zeitgeist. Thanks to a law carved in 1917, the owner of any venue or restaurant that allows dancing while the “Star Spangled Banner” is being played may be fined $100. And, any DJ that plays the national anthem as “dance music…or in a medley of any kind,” may be fined the same amount. As a crowning idiocy, anyone who plays or sings the song in public with “embellishment or addition of other melodies” faces the same fine.
Better pull the right strings
Strangest of all existing dance bans must be the edict of Indiana, which declares puppets cannot dance. Even more absurd is the consequence for violation: Any puppeteer who makes their hand creatures dance must pay a $3 fine, as part of an antiquated campaign to dissuade string-pullers from engaging in certain “immoral practices,” which is cop talk for, you guessed it — public puppet porn, plaything erotica, marionette mashing and toy humping.