Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pub Put Out Over Dance Law

LONDON -- To comply with the law, the managers at the Pitcher and Piano have posted "No Dancing" signs in prominent places. They have switched from catchy popular tunes to soporific "chill-out" remixes. They have issued verbal warnings.

"All staff are fully trained," Stephen Boyd, the deputy manager, said grimly. "They know exactly what to do if there's a sudden outbreak of dancing in here."

Boyd, who is 29 and likes his fun as much as the next person, did not foresee becoming part of the unofficial dance police when he took his job at the Pitcher and Piano, an upscale bar near Trafalgar Square. But since a pair of undercover officers from the local government's licensing body announced in the fall of 2001 that they had observed 14 people unlawfully dancing inside, life at the Pitcher and Piano has not been the same.

"I thought they were pulling my leg," said Boyd, who argued in his own defense, unsuccessfully, that the customers were "swaying rhythmically" and not dancing per se. "There was a bunch of guys with drinks in their hands kind of moving around in a group, but it was hardly 'Saturday Night Fever.'"

But the joke, such as it was, was on Boyd. After reminding him that Westminster City Council forbids dancing in bars that do not hold public entertainment licenses, the officers read him his rights and said he and his lawyer would have to meet with them at their headquarters. So far, the bar's parent company has paid more than $25,000 in fines and legal costs.

The council is sensitive to the criticism it receives for enforcing the licensing laws, which they say were intended to help control the noise generated by dance-inducing music -- a constant complaint from residents of Westminster's entertainment-heavy areas. "Our position is that we're not spoilsports," said Carl Powell, the council's director of planning and transportation. "This is standard, normal policy. If you have dancing, you have to have a public entertainment license."

Powell said the Pitcher and Piano had been warned numerous times. "There's a lack of management and social responsibility," he said. "They need to control what's going on. How many times do you walk into a normal pub and there's dancing going on? In most pubs, you walk in and there isn't a spontaneous scene out of 'Oliver,' where everybody bursts into song and dances through the pub."

A council spokeswoman said Westminster Council, which regulates central London, had issued hundreds of public entertainment licenses, and that it thus had happily sponsored dancing in many locations across town. But at the Pitcher and Piano, she said, when the inspectors returned on further occasions, they found not only blatant dancing, but also blatant loud-music-playing and the wanton turning of a blind eye.

"The music that they played was considered to be so loud and of such a nature as to encourage dancing," said the spokeswoman, who insisted on anonymity as a matter of council policy. "People were also seen dancing on the premises, and no action was taken by staff to stop them."

Westminster City Council, which has a large constituency of wealthy homeowners to placate, has a reputation for enthusiastic enforcement of its own regulations. Although the Pitcher and Piano has been the most prominent miscreant, a number of other premises have also run afoul of the no-dancing rules.

"They have a perverse and bizarre interpretation of the law," said Derek Andrew, the managing director of Pathfinder Pubs, which oversees a chain of 30 Pitcher and Piano locations around the country but has not had dance-related problems in other jurisdictions. "The fact that they have the time to identify and prosecute spontaneous dancing beggars belief."

Even though it has no desire to run its three Pitcher and Piano locations in Westminster as discos, Pathfinder finally decided to apply for public entertainment licenses, so it could satisfy the council's objections and not be caught in further episodes of illegal dancing. The process is elaborate, involving public hearings, inspections and refurbishments -- including reconfiguring the layouts and putting in more bathrooms -- that cost upward of $50,000 per pub. So far, only one of the licenses has been granted.

For now, staff members in the still-unlicensed Trafalgar Square location are left trying to force people to cease and desist from the temptation to dance. Unfortunately for them, many patrons become intent on civil disobedience after a few drinks.

"Groups of people come in and see the signs, and what do they do? Start dancing," Boyd said. Staff members are told to issue three warnings and then eject the offenders -- one evening, a group of 40 people was asked to leave -- but they hate having to do it. "If I go up to a girl and say, 'You can't dance,' she generally thinks it's the worst pickup line she's ever heard," Boyd said.

Even Kevin Bacon himself would not be able to engineer a "Footloose"-style dancing insurrection among the customers, so seriously is the bar taking its responsibility, Boyd said. Boyd is often called to arbitrate in ambiguous cases, and usually, ruefully, he rules that the movement in question runs afoul of the law.

What if a customer got up from her table and walked to the bathroom, waving one arm toward the ceiling and another toward the floor while pulsating in the style of John Travolta?

No question, Boyd said. "Illegal."