Staff Columnist

You are now free to dance in Iowa City

From 1965 until this month, dancing permits were required at Iowa City drinking establishments

Wealthy Phonseya of St. Paul, Minn., competes for his team, War Machine, in the I Oughta Wreck Another break dance competion on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, at Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Twenty teams from across the country entered the contest.  (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)
Wealthy Phonseya of St. Paul, Minn., competes for his team, War Machine, in the I Oughta Wreck Another break dance competion on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, at Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Twenty teams from across the country entered the contest. (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)

The Iowa City Council delivered a victory for freedom and liberty this month when it voted to repeal an ordinance requiring drinking establishments to acquire dancing permits.

“Getting rid of the dancing permits? What, nobody is going to be able to dance around here?” Mayor Jim Throgmorton joked before a council vote last month.

The city attorney made sure to clarify, “You can still dance.”

Indeed, humans have been dancing for thousands of years, whether their local governments approved of it or not. The 1984 film Footloose shows what happens if local governments impose undue restrictions on physical forms of free expression.

The licensure requirement has been in the Iowa City code since 1965. Last year, there were still 12 active dance permits in Iowa City, the Press-Citizen reported, even though the city was not actively enforcing its rules.

The regulation of dancing “was originally intended to address concerns about overcrowding in liquor establishments and resulting fire hazards,” according to city documents. Nowadays, however, those concerns are adequately managed through the liquor license review process.

The fact that it took so long to repeal such a frivolous ordinance illustrates the excesses of government intervention. Business owners are so thoroughly accustomed to silly fees and regulations that several of them continued to make the annual permit payment without challenging it, even as many of their competitors continued blasting music on their dance floors without official permission from the city.

The council is required to approve dancing permits, but in the many years since public dancing has become widely accepted, apparently no council member thought to get rid of the custom.

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While a licensure requirement should strike modern readers as overbearing, at the time, the registration system was actually a pro-dancing project. Before the ordinance, dancing was forbidden in drinking establishments.

The day after the City Council passed the rules in July 1965, the Daily Iowan reported three-fourths of downtown tavern owners said they would not seek dancing permits.

“Nearly all of them cited their lack of available space as the determining factor, although one proprietor said he would be ‘asking for trouble,’ to allow patrons to dance,” the paper reported.

A couple weeks later, the council approved its first round of dancing permits to the now-defunct Li’l Bill’s Discotheque and Kennedy’s Inn.

It was good timing, since that turned out to be a memorable musical summer. The biggest songs in the country were “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops, “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones and “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher, according to Billboard.

To offer a sense of the social context, around the time dancing licenses were authorized in Iowa City, a constituent wrote to the council to ask that the city start enforcing a curfew.

“It seems to me that parents do not take the responsibility of making their children stay off the streets after a reasonable hour, which should be no later than 10 o’clock,” the concerned citizen wrote.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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