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Boston isn’t ‘Footloose,’ so ease up on dancing rules

Businesses that allow patrons to dance need a specific type of entertainment license.

The Boston Globe/file 2012

Businesses that allow patrons to dance need a specific type of entertainment license.

Like the minister in that crazy town in the movie “Footloose,” authorities who try to micromanage dancing are sending the message that they don’t trust ordinary people very much.

In Boston, swaying your hips on a public street won’t get you arrested. But any business that wants to allow patrons to dance needs a specific type of entertainment license. Obtaining that license is far more arduous than it should be.

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The dancing license requirement — the most easily parodied of licensing rules in Boston — derives from a state law that requires businesses to seek special permission in order to use a jukebox, radio, or other music system or to hold a “dance exhibition . . . of any description,” including dancing by patrons.

Elsewhere in the state, bars and restaurants at least get their entertainment licenses from the same agency that handles liquor licenses. But in Boston, the liquor license board is nominally an arm of the state; entertainment licenses come from the city. For business owners, that means twice the regulatory uncertainty, a separate set of public hearings, and more bills from pricey lawyers.

Meanwhile, as the Globe’s Farah Stockman recently reported, vigorous enforcement of Boston’s entertainment licensing rules continues apace. The Police Department has two officers who ferret out violations. One of them made $45,000 in overtime last year.

It’s tempting to attribute Boston’s microregulation of entertainment to the city’s prim heritage; the Puritans, an old joke goes, disapproved of sex because it often led to dancing. Viewed more charitably, Boston’s entertainment regulations reflect city leaders’ desire to tame the city’s red-light districts, where “dancing” was the disguise under which obscenity and prostitution masqueraded. But Scollay Square was bulldozed, and the peepshows and adult theaters of the Combat Zone have given way to high-priced condos.

Now the entertainment license rules fulfill a separate purpose: to give neighbors control over potential disruptions. But there are better ways to handle their legitimate concerns. If neighbors’ goal is, for instance, to limit noise outside a bar, an owner can address it through soundproofing. Police can enforce restrictions on noise regardless of whether anyone’s dancing inside.

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In the meantime, licensing rules steer dancing to big, noisy nightclubs willing to go through the red tape and pay the $1,000 to $2,000 cost of a dancing license. The rules discourage the emergence of lower-key lounges and other neighborhood hangouts where, on some nights, patrons might end up dancing to a jukebox and, on other nights, no one dances at all.

Overly zealous enforcement of dancing regulations exacts a toll on social life, as well. The next Mark Zuckerberg won’t necessarily flee to Silicon Valley just because a bartender reprimanded him and his friends for dancing, but the limits on unlicensed dancing, which establishments are required to enforce, are inherently unwelcoming. They turn an innocent expression of fun into an offense against the city.

They also represent a restriction on Boston’s cultural development and another burden on would-be business owners. If Mayor-elect Martin Walsh hopes to foster a warmer, more inclusive atmosphere in Boston, easing up on rules around dancing would be a symbolic place to start. Bringing entertainment and liquor licensing under the same agency is an important longer-term goal.

Some licensing rules are inevitable and desirable; everyone benefits — business owners, customers, neighbors, and the city as a whole — when entertainment venues are safe and well-run. But not every mode of human conduct needs strict regulatory oversight. Joy and spontaneity are pleasures that should be encouraged, not problems that need to be controlled.

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