By ANITA HOFSCHNEIDER
HONOLULU — After a long day at the beach, tourists may dream of winding down with island music, dancing and a drink or two — but in Maui, drinking and dancing aren’t supposed to mix.
Establishments that serve alcohol in Maui are required to limit dancing to dance floors, which have to be at least 100 square feet, clearly designated and alcohol-free.
“It’s a safety issue,” said Traci Villarosa, deputy director of Maui Department of Liquor Control. “We don’t want drinks spilling or glass breaking on the dance floor.”
Villarosa says the rules are standard and are meant to keep order in bars and restaurants. But years of protests have brought the issue to the state Senate floor.
The Senate is planning to vote today on a bill that would require county liquor commissions to define the term “dancing” in response to many complaints about the regulations.
Critics of Maui’s dancing rule say that because the county rule doesn’t define dancing, it has been applied too broadly and has infringed on people’s freedom of expression.
Villarosa says the bill — which has been co-sponsored by 17 of the 25 state senators — is unnecessary. She says the rule is a nonissue because the liquor commission doesn’t cite patrons, just businesses, and has never revoked a liquor license over violations.
Some say the rule does affect bars and partygoers on Maui because businesses feel pressured to tell people where to dance and ask them to leave if they don’t comply.
“It definitely affects all the businesses around here,” said Bock Chase, a bartender at Ocean’s Beach Bar and Grill in Kihei.
Chase says that he personally has never told anyone to stop dancing but that he’s seen it happen at other bars.
“They try to keep the man down all the time, they have all these stipulations,” he said.
Sarah Stern, a bartender at South Shore Tiki Lounge in Kihei, says inspectors from the Liquor Control Commission visit the bar almost every night.
She says she keeps an eye out for who might be dancing where they shouldn’t be because she knows that she can be held personally accountable for violations of the rule.
“If someone is full-on shaking their thang I try to tell them, ‘Hey guys, there is a dance floor,’” she said.
Stern says she tries to ask nicely because she knows a lot of visitors to Maui aren’t aware of the rule.
“We do have really strict and bizarre laws,” she said.
Anthony Simmons, a teacher’s aide in Maui, has been leading a public protest against the dancing rule for several years.
Seven years ago, he helped form Maui Dance Advocates, a group “dedicated to fighting for the right to dance in Maui county. “
Simmons says he has petitioned the Liquor Control Commission and even sued the county twice to try to get the rule changed. But all his attempts have so far failed. This year is the second time that he’s tried to a get a law passed clarifying the issue.
Simmons says the main problem with the dancing rule is that its ambiguity allows the liquor commission to enforce it arbitrarily.
“I’ve seen them send people multiple times a night to a bar shaking them down for dancing,” he said. “It depends on your relationship with the Liquor Control. No one who has a liquor license wants to say anything.”
Simmons says he first became aware of the rule when he moved to Maui 12 years ago and his band was playing at a bar. A bouncer asked a fan multiple times to stop dancing because the bar didn’t have a dance floor, and when the fan kept grooving, he was eventually asked to leave.
Simmons says the issue is about constitutional rights.
“Currently the rules discriminate against people who have too much joy in their step,” he said in his testimony to the state Senate. He wrote that a disability prevents him from standing still for long periods of time and that the rule doesn’t take disabilities into account.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii submitted testimony supporting the bill, along with several individuals. If it passes the Senate, the bill will next be considered by the House.