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'Watch that scene': an end to Sweden's ridiculed dance permit rule

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
'Watch that scene': an end to Sweden's ridiculed dance permit rule
A dance protest is held in Stockholm in 2012 over the dance permit law. Photo: Lars Pehrson / SvD / TT

Sweden's parliament is set to vote to let anyone who feels the beat from the tambourine to dance, jive and, yes, have the time of their lives... even if the pub or restaurant they are in doesn't have a dance permit. Here's the background.


Dancefloor vice: the background to the ban

The requirement that any bar or restaurant where dancing takes place must have special dance permission, or danstillstånd, from the police, was brought in in 1956 following a decade of growing moral panic over dansbaneeländet, or "the vice of the dance floor". 

Jazz music, rock and roll, and dances such as the swing and the jitterbug had been invading Sweden from the US, and the public reaction was closely linked to fears about young people's increasingly liberal views on sex.


What does the current law say? 

Under the law, any bar or restaurant without a danstillstånd risks a fine if they are judged to have put on a 'dance event', a vague term which covers dance performances, discos, and even less formal dancing in a bar or pub. 

So is there really a ban on 'spontaneous dancing'? 

One of the reasons the law has been so widely ridiculed is that it has been described in Swedish media, including The Local, as a ban on so-called 'spontaneous dancing'. 

The owners of bars or restaurants, it was claimed, risked a fine if one or more of its clientele spontaneously started to shake a leg, and they did not immediately try to stop them, either physically or by turning off the music.  

In its proposal for a new law sent to the Council on Legislation, the government denies that this was ever the case. 


"Individual occasions where guests break out in spontaneous dancing do not... fall under the punishable circumstances," it says of the existing law. 

In 2017, a local police chief in Norrmalm, Stockholm, Pär Carlsson, wrote an article in Dagens Juridik, Sweden's legal newspaper, complaining about the damaging "myth" of a ban on spontaneous dancing. 

"It is unfortunate that the myth that police deploy resources into chasing people spontaneously dancing has become a recurrent phenomenon in the debate and in media reporting," he wrote. "The police do not report cases of spontaneous dancing. What is reported is when restaurant owners host dance events without having a permit." 

What was true, he said, was that restaurant or bar owners accused of holding a dance event without a permit frequently claimed that their customers had started dancing spontaneously. 

This, he wrote, was often the case, "even if they've built a dance floor, set up disco lights and a sound system, and hired a DJ". 

But this did not mean that "spontaneous dancing" itself required a permit. 

Has anyone tried to get rid of the ban before? 

Oh yes.

MPs have proposed dozens of motions to repeal the dance permit requirement, with a motion tabled every single year between 2007 and 2010 and no fewer than 20 proposed between 2011 and 2014, with MPs from all parties except the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats all demanding a change to the law.  

In 2015, a majority of MPs voted to leave the requirement in place, but the very next year, in 2016, parliament finally voted to change the law, leading many to believe that the archaic law would soon vanish from the statute books. 

This was not to be, however.

Even though parliament had voted to change the law, it was still up to the government to draw up a new bill and submit to a vote. In 2017, the then justice minister, Morgan Johansson, appointed  judge Pia Cedermark to lead an inquiry into whether to remove the requirement for permission. 

In 2018, she proposed that the absolute requirement for a permit be replaced by a requirement for a permit if certain risk factors are present. She also proposed an alternative proposal, which is that permits should no longer be required for dance events not held in public places. 

When the Social Democrats once again came back into power in January 2019, however, they did not act on her proposals, leaving the issue dormant for another four years. 

So what will the parliament vote on? 

The new law will continue to require a permit for dance events arranged in public places, at funfairs or similar events, or when the event is of such a scale that it might be a "danger to public order and security or to traffic". 

Public places include "public roads, streets, squares, and parks", as well as any other places marked as public in council plans.

It does not include restaurants, bars and nightclubs. 

In the government's proposal, arrangers of public dance events which do not require permission will still have a duty to inform the police if the events take place outside, or if, "as a result of the expected number of people partaking in the event or meeting", there is a risk of a disturbance to public order, or safety. 

Arrangers of dance events held indoors and outside of areas defined as public under local regulations, will not need to either get permission or inform the police. 


When will the law get voted through? 

In its press release on Thursday, the government said that the bill would most likely be presented to parliament and voted on this Tuesday, but so far, it does not appear to be on the parliament's calendar, so it may be delayed. 


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