Is sneezing a dance move? I asked myself this question every few minutes on Saturday, May 17, as I stumbled around New York City’s Second Annual Dance Parade and Party, sick as a dog. As legions of smiling baton-twirlers, boom box-shakers, sequined thong-wearers, and the occasional harlequin on stilts shimmied and bounced past me on their route from 28th and Broadway to Tompkins Square Park, I had every desire to groove alongside them but found the best I could usually do was a few hearty nods before another wave of racking coughs would take over. Maybe I can make it look like I’m just really getting down, I thought.
Luckily, the parade’s 4,000 dancers and at least equal number of spectators had better things to do that sunny afternoon than critique my moves. For one, they had their 30-plus dance styles to remember, perform, and applaud—the warm-fuzzy Bhangra contingent, 22 hip-hop troupes, and multiple roller-dancing companies kicked out the jams for sure; then there were the more esoteric sacred and ecstatic genres to consider, their devotees looking decidedly mindful. And of course folk dancing: Albanian, Bolivian, Greek, Algerian, Georgian. There was modern dancing, there was clogging, there were circus people doing handstands.
The dancers and audience also had the scores of school bus-sized floats roaring slowly by to contend with. Midtown nightclub Pacha’s red-streamered behemoth seemed to be the darling of the affair, packing in a couple dozen dance lovers plastered with rhinestones and squeezed into cherry-printed hot pants who beamed and gyrated to the deafening strains of their mobile house mix.
Plus, everyone had the event’s goals to keep in mind: “To celebrate New York’s diverse dance communities, invoke delight and brotherhood, and educate the public on policies that effect dancers’ freedom.” That last one especially provides lots of food for thought. In 1926, NYC’s infamous Cabaret Law went on the books, where it remains today. The law, which prohibits nightclubs from allowing patrons to dance without a “cabaret license,” is generally regarded as conservative Prohibition-era politicians’ swipe at interracial socializing, since most of the city’s nightclub dancing was at that time taking place in Harlem jazz clubs where fans of all colors congregated. Since then, amazingly, the law has undergone only minimal changes (like the excision of the requirement that musicians playing in cabaret clubs be “of good character”) and continues to divide the nightlife community (some club owners who’ve made the effort to become properly licensed don’t want rogue cabarets flying under the radar; others believe the right to freedom of expression trumps the archaic law and say damn the torpedoes – which include hefty fines and shutdowns). Many of the more than 100 dance organizations representing at the parade are involved with advocacy efforts to repeal or modify the cabaret law, including Metropolis in Motion, which was founded for the express purpose of “fighting to legalize dancing in New York.”
Happily, Dance Parade Incorporated chooses to hold its yearly events outdoors, where the long arm of the cabaret law does not reach. Even the NYPD gets in on the act, helping with street closures and crowd control–though in a rather surly way, from what I saw. When a cop told me not politely to step behind a barricade I’d been crouching in front of to snap some photos, I nodded and moved a few feet away. When he caught me again a minute later, I was about to give him my press spiel when I saw a stray hula-hoop rolling swiftly toward us. I caught it before it hit him in the leg. “Bet you’re glad I’m here now, huh?” I asked. He glowered and pointed behind the barrier. I handed the hoop back to the Gothic clown who’d come running after it, walked behind the blue sawhorse, and blew my nose.
When the parade was winding its way down the final block of St. Mark’s Place before spilling into the park, I met a friend who’d come to hand out pamphlets for her performance project, called Dance Away Your Debt, to revelers at the after party. “You look terrible,” she said. “Here, help me get rid of these.” For the next hour, we weaved through the packed paths, lawns, and stage area canvassing the crowd. A solar panel-covered cowboy jamming on his Fisher-Price keytar took a pamphlet from me in front of the table where Miss Dance of the United States and the United States Dance Team, who I initially mistook for the Younger Sisters of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, were signing autographs. A band of bald muscle-bound gymnasts in baggy baji helped themselves to a handful near the jam band Batucada L’Atelier and its sole dance component (a woman of at least 60 wearing a long floral dress and floppy cloche hat who danced with the energy of a Terrier puppy). Four kids in khaki Ghostbuster uniforms and giant black sunglasses warming up behind the band shell for their performance stopped to stuff a few pamphlets into their jumpsuits.
A little after five o’clock, exhaustion set in and I dragged myself to the basketball court where a small group had gathered to learn how to pop like the Electric Boogaloos to beatbox rhythms. I would later see the instructor on stage dressed like Flavor Flav dancing with a woman in a kimono. They pantomimed a story in which she drinks poison and dies, only to be resurrected by the power of his popping. Then they both did the robot.
For my part, I took a seat on the other side of the court and popped some chewable vitamin C. Sisters in Motion Roller Dance, all wearing full-body black spandex catsuits and bright blue feather boas, gathered nearby. They formed a circle, took each other’s hands to say a group prayer and skated off into the late afternoon.
April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.