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farah stockman

You need a license to dance in Boston

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

A few months ago, I went to dinner at Dbar on Dorchester Avenue. A DJ started spinning and something magical happened. Picture this: white men in suits who had taken their wives out to dinner, black women in stiletto heels on a “girls night out,” gay guys in tight T-shirts, and an Asian woman in a stunning dress, all cheering each other down a soul train line.

It was a glimpse of the funky, inclusive place Boston could be, if only we would let it.

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Why are nights like that so rare here? Research reveals numerous structural impediments to fun that have been erected over the years. Perhaps the most surprising is that you need a license to dance.

It’s true. A Massachusetts law that dates back to 1926 states that any “concert, dance exhibition, cabaret, or public show of any description” requires a license issued by the city. In the early 1980s, lawmakers made it abundantly clear that includes “dancing by patrons.” Want a live band, a DJ, or a sing-along piano man at your bar? You need a “live entertainment license.” Want a jukebox? A dartboard? A TV? Or just to plug in an iPod to speakers? You need a “non-live entertainment license.” Think a pool table will bring in business? That’s a different application. Want to host a pop-up art gallery or a poetry slam? Get thee down to City Hall for a one-day permit.

Yes folks. On top of the food service health permit, the common victualler’s license, the dumpster permit, the fire department’s assembly permit, and the first-born son you must sacrifice to obtain a liquor license, bar owners must seek special permission for dancing.

Just because you hear music doesn’t mean you are authorized to dance. Some places are in entertainment purgatory, where DJs are authorized, but dancing is not. Sway your hips too vigorously, and the bouncer might ask you to leave.

That’s because Mayor “Nothing-Good-Happens-After-Midnight” Menino doesn’t take enforcement lightly. The city employs not one but two police officers to enforce these violations. (In 2011, one of them earned $165,000, including $45,000 of overtime.)

I don’t fault these men for doing their job. They have uncovered dangerous firetraps and drunken minors. But some of what they investigate sound a lot more like sins than crimes. Was the public really in danger when Umbria Steakhouse held a theme night featuring Svedka Vodka models in unbuttoned men’s shirts? Or when a lingerie store in Fields Corner hosted a party with alcohol served by “women dressed lewdly?”

Should taxpayers be more upset that the Fourth Wall Project, an urban art space on Brookline Avenue, provided “DJ entertainment” without an entertainment license or that a cop spent his time writing them up? Are we really supposed to be outraged that Emerald Lounge, a chic spot in the Theater District, allowed “dancing to music” on New Year’s Eve? Personally, I’d be outraged if they didn’t.

Such citations have led bloggers to compare Boston to the fictitious farm town in the movie “Footloose,’’ where public dancing was banned, prompting the Licensing Board for the City of Boston to issue a statement declaring that dancing is not in fact outlawed. (Seriously. This happened. In Boston. Last year.)

Both the governor-appointed Licensing Board, which regulates liquor and food, and the city’s Licensing Division, which regulates dancing, play a role in giving Boston its allergic-to-fun image. Mayoral candidate John Connolly has pledged to loosen up restrictions. So has rival Marty Walsh, to a lesser extent. It’s about time. But Bostonians — and their cranky neighbors — are also to blame for keeping these Prohibition-era laws alive.

Brian Piccini, the 33-year-old award-winning entrepreneur who opened Dbar in 2005, says that neighborhood groups initially opposed his entertainment license. It wasn’t because of noise. (Dbar sits next to two gas stations.) Neighbors had bad memories of trouble at the bar that had been there before. Piccini promised to be different and convinced enough residents to speak up for him that Patricia Malone, Boston’s entertainment license czar, gave him a chance. After a year-and-a-half of running the license gantlet, Dbar finally held its grand opening. But the Fire Department promptly showed up and shut him down. Just for two weeks, to review his permits. Lucky for him — and for us — everything was in order, including his license to dance.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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