Tea dances were events organized on Sunday afternoons in the gay community starting in New York beginning in the 1950s and 1960s before spreading worldwide. The name alludes to traditional tea dances from the English countryside circa Downton Abbey or Bridgerton. The dances included tea service and they became the safest and best place to meet other guys and hook up hopefully.
BACKGROUND – It was illegal in the 50’s through the mid-1960s for bars in New York to sell alcohol to people known to be gay, and New York City police would conduct raids on establishments catering to them (see our previous article on the Stonewall riots and other events from this era). Therefore, gay men began to hold tea dances outside the city as an alternative venue for meeting. In New York, these generally took place on Fire Island, in Cherry Grove and the Pines, on Sunday afternoons. Serving tea rather than alcohol made them more acceptable and less law-defying. Because they were held in the afternoon, attendees could catch a ferry and return home and be ready to work on Monday morning. The gay telegraph went into overdrive and soon there were tea dances in San Francisco, LA and all other large US cities and then other countries followed suit depending on their own nationalities any LBGTQ+ laws.
Historically, tea was served in the afternoon, either with snacks (“low tea”) or with a full meal (“high tea” or “meat tea”). High Tea eventually moved earlier in the day, sometimes replacing the midday “luncheon” and settled around 11 o’clock, becoming the forerunner of what we know as “brunch”.
From the late 1800’s too well into the pre-WWI era in both America and England, late afternoon (low) tea service became the highlight of society life. As dance crazes swept both countries, tea dances became increasingly popular as places where single women and their gentlemen friends could meet — the singles scene of the age so gay’s adopted this scenario wholesale.
While ‘straight’ tea dances enjoyed a revival in America after the Great War, The Great Depression of the 30’s wiped them out. Tea consumption was in steady decline in America anyways and by the 50’s, tea was largely thought of as something “your grandmother drinks”. Also, nightlife was moving later and younger. Working men and women were too busy building the American Dream to socialize so it was left to their teenaged children in the age of sockhops and the jukebox diner. Rock and roll was dark and dangerous — something you sneaked out for after dinner, not took part in before dinner.
Gay people, of course, were still largely underground in the 50s, but it was in these discreet speakeasies that social (Non partnered) dancing was evolving. It was illegal for men to dance with men, or for women to dance with women. In the event of a raid, gay men and lesbian women would quickly change partners to mixed-couples. Eventually, this led to everyone sort of dancing on their own which has continued until today.
By the late 60s, gay men had established the Fire Island Cherry Grove ‘queer village locale) and also the more subdued and “closeted” Pines (off of Long Island, not far from downtown New York) as a summer resort of sorts. It was illegal at that time for bars to ‘knowingly sell alcohol to homosexuals’ and besides many of the venues there were not licensed as ‘night clubs’ or to sell alcohol. To avoid attracting attention, afternoon tea dances were promoted. Holding them earlier in the day also allowed those who needed to catch the last ferry back to the mainland.
The proscription against same-sex dancing was still in effect and gay men were not allowed to dance together by law, so organizers were forced to institute ‘no touching’ rules. The only way it could happen was in a group. The line dance was born. Dances like the “Hully Gully” and “The Madison” allowed men to dance together as long as there was at least one woman involved. It became the rage in the Pines. The dancing was monitored by someone up on a ladder with a flashlight and megaphone to observe, if the men got too close the light would be shined on them. The dance would be featured in the 1970 film “Boys in the Band.”
In 1967 Tea Dance went to 7 days a week during season (The 5 Summer months) on Fire Island……..they were that popular. During this time raids by the Suffolk Police Department were a common occurrence on Fire Island. The men of the Pines were often rounded up like cattle and chained to poles in order for them to get their quota. Their identities were sometimes revealed in the local press.
By the 1970’s after the Stonewall riots disco music arrived and again the Tea Dance would evolve. It would now grow into a phenomenon that all of Fire Island would find their way too. Furthermore, post-Stonewall, the tea dance moved to Greenwich Village in the city. A newly-energized gay community around Christopher Street embraced the social dancing craze. While the Fire Island gays tended to be rich upper-class preppies, the downtown gays of Christopher Street and the Village were working-class and they tended to party at night. As in the straight community, tea dances gradually moved later until they became subsumed into the night club scene.
Through the 70’s, gay men championed the uniform of the working class — t-shirts and denim — as fashion aesthetic. In part because they were affordable, and in part because it projected an appealing hypermasculinity associated with the working class (Still often adopted today). Gays in the post-Stonewall era were consciously rebelling against the effete stereotypes associated with the manicured, sweater-wearing, tea-drinking gays of the Fire Island set. Real men wore t-shirts and drank beer. Gay men still had afternoon/early evening dances — usually on Sundays, in order to make the most of one’s weekend while still being able to get up for Monday morning’s work.
The downtown gays rejected the term “tea dance” as being too effete and opted for the supposedly butcher “t-dance”, and promoted “t-shirts and denim” as the costume of choice. By the mid 70’s, the “Christopher Street Clone” look (short cropped hair, moustache, plaid shirt over a tight white t-shirt, faded denim jeans that showed off your ass) had made the trans-continental trip from New York City to Los Angeles and, of course, to San Francisco bringing with it the tea dance/T-dance phenomenon and everywhere else followed suit.
Through the decades the popularity of the tea dance has waned. And while it still survives in Fire Island and a few gay bastions like Provincetown and Palm Springs it is a former shadow of itself. Of course, as legality and acceptance have improved along with laws on gays drinking alcohol, dancing together and becoming even keener on finding new hook-ups the need for them have been somewhat superseded. Gay bar and club owners of course need punters through the door 7 days a week so Sunday is still an important part of our social calendar but now the more standard ‘beer bust’ tends to be favoured….which are basically Tea dances with added Bud, Coors or Stellas instead of ‘olde English tea’.
Those wishing to experience a modern T-Dance can still do as there are still plenty advertised weekly in the likes of Fire Island, Fort Lauderdale, San Fran, LA, New Orleans, Key West & some big European cities not to mention hugely popular ones in Provincetown where often guys prefer the sociability of daytime events rather than the crowded Sunday night club events and of course you get that extra recovery time before the working queer week starts up again. It would be great if our large International LBGTQ+ fetish circuit party/week/weekend promoters added and revived some T-Dances to their schedules to fit with the standard working week more and maybe give a diversity of appeal with some fun commercial chart music as opposed to the continuous late night repetitive 128bpm vocal less house tracks of our Friday and Saturday night headline club events.
We would like to thank the great site www.back2stonewall.com for help with this feature.
THE GAY TEA DANCE (or T-DANCE) – PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE by Will Kohler & Paul Stag.