10 02 2007

My wife and I like to go out dancing a couple of times a month, and for the last three years one of our favorite dance parties has been centered around an African drumming group led by a friend and neighbor of ours. The gathering rapidly became too big to meet in anyone’s home, so for a while we met in the sanctuary of a local “New-Age” church, where the altar bore the somewhat ironic (for us) inscription, “be still and know that I am God.” We describe ourselves as a “rhythm church,” and for us it’s more like, “shake your booty and know that you are God/dess.” Well, somebody in the congregation thought they saw someone smoking a joint in the parking lot, and complained to the minister, and we were outta there. Zero tolerance. It was wonderful to see how the standards of proof were applied, if you know what I mean…..

The next venue that we settled into was a “coffee house” in an urban neighborhood. They had great food, served good beer for those who were into it, didn’t allow smoking indoors, and had just enough room for a dance floor when we pushed the tables back. Recently, however, we have run afoul of unintended consequences. The coffeehouse applied for a wine license—and, according to Tennessee law, an establishment with a wine license must maintain forty usable chairs at tables, at all times, whether the customers want ’em or not. They can’t be pushed back into a pile, or the ever-vigilant inspectors from the Alcoholic Beverage Commission will levy a fine.

Could we declare ourselves “a private party” and keep meeting at the coffeehouse? Well, the liquor law says that all “private parties” in public establishments must be reported, and, according to the coffeehouse/wine bar’s manager, too many private parties in a row “raises red flags.”

I started making phone calls and going on the web to confirm what I was hearing. An employee of the ABC told me that she didn’t know anything about the history of or rationale for the law, it was simply her business to enforce it. Along the way, I found out that a “dance license” is also required for places that intend to feature dancing as part of their activities. And what happens if people just get up and start to dance? Is it illegal to dance, for cryin’ out loud? Apparently, it is. The laws of Metropolitan Davidson County state:

“It is unlawful to hold or conduct any public dance or to operate any public dancehall within the metropolitan government area until such dancehall or other place in which such public dance may be held shall first have been duly registered as a public dancehall with the chief of police and a permit shall have been issued by the beer permit board for the operation of such dancehall or the holding of such dance, an application fee of one hundred dollars plus a one hundred dollar annual fee for the permit.” 6.12.020 Registration, permit and fees required.

Wow, we’d been breaking the law all along. Apparently, if you have a reasonable expectation that people are going to get up and dance at your public function, you gotta pony up two hundred bucks, even if it’s a free, one-time event. That’s a party pooper, eh?

Of course, the logical reason for all this is wanting to avoid the tragedy that could occur if a large number of people were in a room with poor exits and the place caught fire, or the floor collapsed, and it’s true that such tragedies have occurred. But they occurred in a different context than our community of drummers and dancers.

This statute presumes that there is some separation between the promoter and the public, that the promoter will, if possible, exploit the public and even expose people to danger in order to make a little more money, and that the state must therefore act to protect the public from unscrupulous promoters. This is not relevant to our situation, but the law does not recognize this. Our loose community of ecstatic drummers and dancers would have to coagulate into a formal organization, with an admission policy, and have private parties somewhere, somehow, in order to not violate this particular law. That so-called remedy, I think, would not really improve anything. It would just create more bureaucratic paper-shuffling.

Something else that I found peculiar was the presumed close connection between dancing and beer. Beer licensing and dance hall licensing go hand in hand. Hey, beer companies sponsor rock n’roll these days, don’ they? I guess I’m kind of old-school, though—to me, alcohol is antithetical to a really good dancing experience, but then the celebratory substances I favor when I’m dancing are thoroughly illegal. Oh, well. It occurs to me that if those substances were legalized under the current paradigm, and regulated by laws similar to the beer laws, it would create a whole new level of legal and legislative red tape. Maybe that’s some of why they’re not legal yet—there’s no way for the system to integrate them, given its negative assumptions about human nature.

This has quite an eye-opener for me. I had no idea how restrictive the laws are in this state. I suspect that some of what drives them is religious fanatacism that figures that if it can’t actually stop drinking and dancing, it will make them as difficult as possible. It’s a trivial issue, compared to so many, but at the same time, it illustrates the dualistic, Byzantine thinking that has been encoded into law under the rubric of the Democrats and the Republicans, and makes it difficult to stage small, semi-spontaneous, low-rent community events—the kind that make a community a community. Want a party that really wants to get government off people’ backs? Want a party that is really liberal? Want a party that really likes to party? Go Green!

music: Ed Haggard and the Love Drums, “Soliwoulen




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