Slow Dance

The Teen Dance Ordinance is dead, so why aren't promoters more excited?

A time but no money to dance.

For eight long years, Kate Becker, godmother of the all-ages scene, has struggled to improve the climate for teen dancing in Seattle. For the last 96 months, after her working day as head of one of the region’s premier all-ages venues—Redmond’s Old Fire House—Becker has met with politicians, city bureaucrats, cops, punks, promoters, hip-hopsters, and worried parents. So you’d think that on Monday, Aug. 12, when the Seattle City Council finally passed the All Ages Dance Ordinance, Becker would be celebrating.

Wrong. “I am quite frustrated,” she says. “It has been a lot of work for a little bit of progress.”

Every all-ages promoter Seattle Weekly spoke with, whether the heads of large established clubs or D.I.Y. shows, shared Becker’s frustration. Fuzed Music’s David Meinert summed up most people’s bottom line: “Politicians don’t understand the music business, and then they try to write laws for it.”

The new law replaces 1985’s infamous Teen Dance Ordinance, which many feel contributed to the decline of Seattle’s music scene. Becker and others do praise aspects of the new law and the persistence of Seattle City Council members Nick Licata and Richard Conlin to pass it.

Where the old law restricted admission at teen dances to those between the ages of 15 and 20, the new law has no age limits. The old law required the hiring of off-duty police officers for security, which gave the Police Guild de facto veto power over which events were legal. The new law says if an event goes past 2 a.m., promoters merely must request off-duty police. It also requires one security person for each 250 attendees. The old law mandated $1 million worth of insurance for each dance; the new law doesn’t require any insurance.

Perhaps the biggest single difference is the old law never defined what a dance was. Promoters say police used this vagueness to apply the law arbitrarily. The clearest support for their claim came during a lawsuit in which the cops’ teen dance expert, Deputy Police Chief Clark Kimerer, testified that a rave is not a dance. The new law defines a dance as an event where the “primary purpose” is to dance; it goes on to specify that concerts are not dances.

While promoters grumbled about the new law’s requirements that they hire expensive security and undergo criminal background checks, their fundamental concern is that the law won’t lead to a thriving all-ages scene in Seattle. The legislation doesn’t address the scene’s primary problem: money, specifically the lack of it. “There’s no profit in putting on all-ages events,” says James Keblas of the Vera Project, an arts space that puts on all-ages shows and receives limited funding from city government. Adult clubs make their money on booze, and all-ages events don’t have that option. “If you charge enough to make money, no one can afford to go. I know this from my experience.”

Becker, whose Old Fire House is run by the city of Redmond, says all-ages events “really need a subsidy. Young and emerging artists have no draw, and their audience—usually teenagers—has no money. Lots of other things—like school sports—are subsidized, why not the music scene?”

UW student Sam Chesneau, who has been promoting all-ages hip-hop shows for three years in Seattle, says he has “never made a cent for what I’ve done.” Then he corrects himself: He made $100 on one event. He began promoting shows after being tossed out of 21-and-over clubs when he was underage. “It’s an investment of time for the community,” he says. In return, he would appreciate it if the City Council didn’t make it more expensive and difficult with security requirements and background checks.

In addition to money problems, the Vera Project’s Keblas says there is something even deeper that restricts the all-ages scene: fear of teenagers. “It’s a social stigma. If you try to put on a show in the neighborhoods, it makes adults nervous,” he claims. “It’s too close to homes or the music is too loud. People get very nervous around groups of young people who are having a good time.”

Becker feels if the last eight years have been worthwhile at all, it is partially because they helped to counter that stigma. She and her allies have engaged the larger community in an ongoing dialogue about these issues. “A lot of adults have been educated over the past eight years,” she asserts. While the All Ages Dance Ordinance is “far from perfect,” she believes all of the effort has resulted in a social environment where there will be “less harassment and greater community awareness” of the importance of music and dance to young people.

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