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The Very Gay and Interesting History of the Almost Lost Tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance

 

 

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The Very Gay History of the Almost Lost Tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance

 

Many gay men under the age of 30 today are totally clueless of almost lost tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance. (A tradition that really must be brought back.) So here’s a little history primer on the tradition of the “Sunday T-dance” and how and why we embraced it in the LGBT culture.

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 to 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.

While 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 (nonpartnered) 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.

By the late 60s, gay men had established the Fire Island Cherry Grove and also the more subdued and “closeted” Pines (off of Long Island, in 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 in the afternoon also allowed those who needed to catch the last ferry back to the mainland to attend.

The proscription against same-sex dancing was still in effect, so organizers were forced to institute ‘no touching’ rules. Since there were no lesbians around to change partners with, gay men developed the “dancing apart” style that club-goers everywhere now take for granted.

June 28, 1969…the Stonewall Riots mark the fiery birth of the so-called “modern gay rights movement”. Following (and in part perhaps inspired by) the death of gay icon Judy Garland, (as the urban legend goes)  patrons of the Greenwich Village watering hole The Stonewall Inn  fought back against another in a very long line of violent police raids, eventually barricading the police inside the bar and setting off three nights of rioting. The “snapped stiletto heel heard around the world”as some call it is commemorated today with Gay Pride celebrations held around the end of June.

Post-Stonewall, the tea dance moved from the Fire Island Pines to Greenwich Village. A newly-energized gay community around Christopher Street embraced the social dancing craze started on Fire Island. 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. 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 70s, the “Christopher Street Clone” look (short cropped hair, mustache, 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 (gays in Hollywood) and, of course, to San Francisco (follow the Yellow Brick Road and it leads to Castro). It brought with it the tea dance phenomenon, which is slowly dying out and is nothing of its former self and in may places is all but gone.

So grab those fans and poppers boys and and lets “Ohhhhha, Ooooha” like its 1978 again!  

Lets not let Sunday Tea become a piece of our forgotten gay history also.

*LGBT HISTORY TRIVIA:

“Come to Me” the hit disco song sung by France Joli  received a HUGE boost when Joli performed it as a last-minute replacement for Donna Summer at a concert held on Fire Island on July 7, 1979 before an estimated audience of 5000 dancing gay men.

*BONUS TRIVIA:

 Back in the day a no gay man worth his weight in poppers ever went to Sunday Brunch before 2 p.m. and timed it that way as  to hit the Tea Dance at 4 p.m. part of this was because they were out at after-hours clubs, the Baths, or the Meat Rack the night before till 6 or 7 a.m. in the morning.

 

Source:  The Clock

 

 

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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128 thoughts on “The Very Gay and Interesting History of the Almost Lost Tradition of the Sunday Tea Dance”

      1. OSCARS=PATHETIC….Worst T-DANCE EVAH !!
        The place may be packed, but the service sucks, and the place is dead any other day of the week. And the music is the same songs every week…the DJ needs to expand his/her selection of T-dance tracks.

        LONG LIVE THE REAL T-DANCES !!

    1. No it doesn’t. Moving on and allowing culture to evolve is beneficial to society as a whole. Holding on to out of date and no longer popular rituals isn’t beneficial to anyone, otherwise they would still exist. If people wanted tea dances, then they wouldn’t have died.

      1. While I disagree with the “black or white” aspect of Scott Mcg’s comment, the cultural heritage of the gay rights movement, including t-dances and other evolving norms deserve to be remembered and celebrated. No one has suggested tossing Warhol, Matisse & Picasso out of museums to make way for emerging artists. Much of what the “new” generation of gays think of as their contribution to gay culture turns out to be “derivitive;” they just are ignorant of it. If I hear one more young gay person quote Tallulah Bankhead and cite their friend “Ron” as the source, I think I’ll puke. The reference to people dying as the reason for t-dance’s waning is too crass to warrant further comment.

        1. Appreciating the history of something is not the same as reimplementing it. Each generation should know the joy of celebrating gay culture in their own way, and not be forced to follow in the footsteps of their elder brothers.

          But knowing the history of our culture is important too. While I have attended a tea-dance or two in my time, I never knew the story behind them, or the huge impact they have had on our culture.

          Tea-dances were the reason everyone dances apart??? Who knew!!!

          And it’s more than just a simple trivial tidbit of LGBT culture. It underscores and reveals the immense impact LGBT culture can have on the general culture at large.

          Fast forward to the present time, and gee — maybe there’s a similar influence on why so many people COHABITATE instead of getting married…?

          Maybe because so many of their gay friends CAN’T.

      2. Hi Jeff and Scott Mcg. Jeff’s comments were misinterpreted by a couple of others as much as he may have mis-read Scott Mcg. Despite that, I pretty much agree with both of you. It is important to have our history available, even as the culture evolves. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciate Will Kohler’s history of the t-dance, and will look for more of his writing as a result. Thanks, Will!

      3. Jeff, a LOT of our culture died when AIDS killed the men of the culture. This isn’t evolution, its extinction.

  1. I used to work at the Lost and Found in Washington DC in the 70’s and 80’s and we had the most fabulous Tea Dance of all.

    1. Denny Lyon!

      OMG, do you remember me? We worked together at the Lost and Found in the early 80s…I started as a busboy in the restaurant! My nickname was Hawkeye for cleaning everyone’s frigging ashtrays so quickly and I was like 18. Your name is ringing bells in my head like quasimodo!
      I ended up in Rehobeth Beach DE as a bartender at the Renegade for Glenn Thompson. Hope you see this…on FB as Ron E Armstrong

      1. Ron Armstrong; do you remember a guy that once opened the Lost & Found named John Ford? I’ve lost track of him over the years. He had at least an interest in the L&F but I don’t remember the time frame.
        Thanks,
        Frank

    2. The L & F Tea Dance was the best for me as well. Just like the article outlined brunch at 2 PM, Tea at 4 and you could do BOTH at the Lost and Found. We knew Denny through Joe DelVecchio of Balloon Bouquets of Washington, Inc.

    3. Oh Denny, you are so right! The Tea Dance at the Lost & Found in DC was the absolute best! It’s actually hard to describe how wonderful it actually was for so many of us in early 80’s. To be on the softball team and come there after a game was great too. Working for an airline I traveled the country and Marlin Beach and Backstreet in Fort Lauderdale and the Bourbon Pub in New Orleans were great but the L&F was the most fabulous!

  2. Tea Dance is alive and well at La Te Da in Key West, every Sunday afternoon poolside with a great DJ. A different theme every week! What time? Tea time, of course! 4PM

    1. I remember (vaguely) going in a long parade of people from La Te Da to another resort right by the ocean, what was its name?, after the La Te Da dance was over.. or did I hallucinate that. Big fun back when… I want to say the Atlantis… but there is the Atlantic house.. so that can’t be right … I will be bothered by this till I can figure it out.. pls help .. jlw

  3. Tea is alive and well in Asbury Park, NJ, attracting hundreds to the town’s biggest gay resort every Sunday between Memorial and Labor Day. It’s also thriving in PTown, as you probably know already.

  4. Interesting (and I won’t point out the typos) but tea dance is still alive in some places like FIP. As recently as the late 1980s tea dances were still alive across North America. I think t-dance came about as a replacement for tea dance as simply part of our shortening of terms in the English language, not due to an attempt to be “butch”. Also, I lived in NYC and San Francisco in the late 70s and early 80s and the term was “Castro Clone”, I never heard “Christopher Street Clone”.

    1. I think the references to Castro Stret and Christopher Street “Clones” was mostly local to those cities. Right across the Hudson in New Jersey we just called the look “gay clones” or just “the clones.”

  5. My boyfriend and I remember the good ole days in Boston when tea dance was THE place to be on Sunday at a bar called Chaps. While tea dance still flourishes in P-Town in the summer, it was dead in Boston until 5 years ago when we started it again at a small unknown bar in the Roslindale section of Boston. It has since found its home in-town at Club Cafe where this Thanksgiving weekend it celebrates its 3rd anniversary at that venue. Its for the older crowd because the young ones as mentioned in the article, just dont know it the way us folks in our 40s, 50s and 60s do. To make it authentic, its pure disco music from the 70s and 80s. What else could it be but pure disco to remember the good ole days. If you’re in Boston check it out on any Sunday. Its called Back2Basics Tea Dance, starts at 5pm (people dont come till 6) and there is no cover. And, as mentioned its at Club Cafe at 209 Columbus Ave where Back bay meets the South End of Boston. Lets not let tea dance die again in Boston!

  6. Tea Dance is alive and well from early April until Columbus Day in The Pines, where it all started. This past September, France Joli once again performed her worldwide hit “Come to Me” to a huge crowd of appreciative gay men at Low Tea. Many such pop-up performances are planned for the 2014 season.

  7. Thanks Will, I so enjoyed our west coast t-dances when I DJed at the Endup in the late 70’s where we incorporated a Jockey Shorts Dance Contest (as told in ‘Tales of the City’). Yes those were grand times. PeterMixt

  8. Dancing, separately as opposed to holding your partner started with the twist in the very early 60’s and continued on with the frog, monkey, etc. it had nothing to do with a shortage of women at the Fire Island tea dances which actually started at the old hotel in Cherry Grove, not the Pines. If you are going to give a history lesson, investigate it first.

  9. Some places have t dance and no dancing which is kinda (yes kinda is an acceptable word to grammar police), strange to me- at least it’s keeping something of the fun side of gay life going. Fun in that u actually interacted w people in the flesh ( in many more ways than today). It should never be forgotten that it was illegal to sell alcohol to psychologically abnormal people- we were still considered abnormal in all medical journals – that was the profiling of the police in NYC at that time- icePalace is where I grew up, and I’m thankful I survived ( it was also the first club I remember hearing people singing I Will Survive on the dance floor) Little did we know what was lurking around the corner for us – basically massacring an entire generation of us. It went from fun to scary in what now seems like the rush off those poppers

  10. I really appreciated learning about the history of the T-Dance. I always wondered about it, and have attended quite a few in the 90’s. Learing about the history of dancing couples, if you will, was also quite interesting; I had no idea that gay men actually started the “dancing alone” craze. That is pretty freakin awesome being that it is the NORM for any club straight or gay. Thanks for sharing; it helps the younger gay generation like myself gain a better understanding and respect for our culture.

  11. The Tea Dance is also alive and kicking every Sunday in Seattle at The Cuff with yours truly. Not only the greatest disco/dance hits from the 70’s and 80’s but we include the music videos. Great fun to see some of these groups from the past in all their polyester fabulousness.

  12. While being just old enough to get into Disco’s in the late 70’s but still underage I managed to get into some of the most packed bars in N.Y.C. back in the day, the Cockring,Limelight,The 10th circle,Crisco Disco.Tampa Fla where I was in 1978-79, The tea dance exploded at The Old Plantation on a Sun you could bet the bar was packed and with all that great music that was released in that year the place rocked.Thanks for writing this article it brought me back to a great time period in my life.

  13. I had no idea! I live in New Orleans where Sunday tea is a huge thing, but I never knew where the name came from. I don’t know if New Orleans is the only place this still goes on every week? It usually starts in the mid-Sunday afternoon and gets crazy around 4-6pm. Each of the bars have their own special Sunday tea theme, music videos or gay bingo or whatever, and the bars are packed! Thanks for posting; there is so much queer history that is lost to younger generations because the traditions have changed. It seems like much of our history is oral, and it isn’t getting passed down.

  14. The guy standing in the middle of the picture above is me – circa 1977 or thereabouts. It should be noted that according to my information, the first “Tea Dance” at the Botel on Fire Island was started by my late friend Kenny Meyerson. He made the deal with John Whyte, the owner, to bring in his own equipment for a social event with dancing in the late afternoon. This was in the mid-to-late 60’s when the “morality” laws forbid men from dancing together. A single woman would volunteer to dance in a circle of 6-8 guys to circumvent the laws.

      1. Yes, right in the photographer’s view finder, massive curly hair, bare-chested, white shorts (likely no underwear) with that slightly stoned look, Ah to be 19-20 years old again!

  15. Great information! I always wondered why it was still called a Tea Dance (we have a LBGTQ tea dance once a year in my neighborhood), when they don’t serve tea? LOL

    Interesting info about “Come To Me,” also. I always wondered why I never heard it on the radio in my hometown (in IL), when we heard Donna Summer all the time. Of course–many disco songs were mainly club hits and didn’t necessarily play on the radio in the Midwest!

    1. The only place in the upper midwest you heard Donna Summer and the like was on CKLW, it was a 50,000 watt station at 800 on the AM dial out of Windsor, Ontario, serving the Detroit radio market, it was also the only place on the radio dial you heard all of Motown.

  16. Tea is alive and well at Boom in Ft. Lauderdale. Of course, it doesn’t get going til around 8-9pm, but that is about how late t-dances in the early 80’s in Atlanta ended up being. It is fun, great music, packed with friendly hot guys! Next time in Ft.L, make it a must! Ido.

  17. Tea Dances are still being held at the Dunes Resort in Douglas/ Saugatuck, Michigan (During the summer season)! In fact they have an “Ice Tea” on New Year’s Day!

  18. Great story! Had no idea about the gay-inspired dancing alone or in circles of people! Sorry to the poster who claims it was the dances like The Twist, while true they may have ‘started it’, those dances were always done in couples. Now it’s obvious that the gay men doing it and having so much damn fun at it as we did in the early disco days of NYC (Reade Street, Flamingo, 12 West!) that truly popularized it to mainstream pop culture – like so many things. Great article; great content. Thanks so much!

  19. Lady Bunny will be DJing tea dance this Sunday 6-10pm (12/1/13) at the Manhattan Monster in NYC’s west village. This tea dance has been running in this gay historic landmark since 1981. The original Monster was in Cherry Grove, Fire Island.

  20. Great article about T-Dance, but have no idea why you threw in those totally false urban legends about Stonewall. The Judy Garland myth was started by heterosexual reporters to explain why the queers were so angry. There was a Judy Garland memorial of sorts at a bar called Julius’s around the corner. The idea that there was a drag show at the mob owned Stonewall in 1969 is just silly. And as for the “stiletto” reference… it was a “passing” (dressed as a man) butch lesbian that they 1st put in the police car. She is the one that stared rocking it, was able to get out and got the crowd riled up to tip it over. No stilettos involved. In fact the drag queen thing is more about Sylvia Rivera showing up on the 2nd night, not the 1st.

    1. Thank you for being factual! Sylvia was nodding out in Tompkins Sq. Most of the first night of Stonewall. But when Julius closed that night, it was that drunken crowd that heard the noise down the street and then joined the disturbance.

  21. I got lucky…I was able to enjoy and be “gay” at the end of the “T-Dance” days of Orlando…some areas have now revised the term and now call it “Sunday Funday” but not many areas celebrate Sunday Fundays yet.

    If you have Sunday Fundays and can be gay and free..then celebrate…just remember there are not many people who can do such things and must resort to the old smokey dark bars of the past to still gather…at least they’re not sitting behind some computer monitor trying to look for their next hook up of the day or being a bitchy queen on an article they happened to read. Be out, be proud and be safe; hiding behind a computer is still not being counted and for god’s sake but away your phone unless you’re getting a call you’re at a bar there to socialize.

    As for “Matthew A,” if something speaks to you then it must be true because for you to have the balls to comment on something you did not read…then you are clueless.

    In the end, HIS-STORY is what is finally agreed upon; I foresee a lot of asterisk marks in the book of the “Gay Rights War.”

  22. OMG done them all and they were great! Everyone that attend these tea dans ams out saying OMG how fun was this! It was a gathering of normal human being trying to identify themselves in a society. We were welcoming and fun! P-town T-Dance is still my favorite one. Outside on the beach with the sun the winds and of course the music. Let’s keep some tradition alive. All young gay men that experience t-dance think this if Fab! so pass it on….

  23. There’s even a T-Dance at Epcot Walt Disney World on Sunday every year for Gay Days. Probably the only T in the world with a $70 cover charge (haha). I don’t care where the Tea is, it’s all about the music.

  24. The DUNES Resort in Saugatuck/Douglas Mich. still does T-dance /Tea Dance on Sundays “in season” and gets quite the crowd. You go to Tea Dance before making the drive home to where ever that might be… end of a great week or weekend.

  25. In addition to the Key West tea dance listed above, we’ve enjoyed a T-Dance tradition since 1992 at the Royal Palms here in Fort Lauderdale Beach (most Sundays). If you’re ever spending a weekend here in S.Florida, look into it. A blast.

  26. Backstreet Atlanta and The Saint Atlanta-great Sundays back in the day.!
    lets not forget The OP (Old Plantation) in Jacksonville-packed and great times.

  27. Such a great article. Another reason Sunday Tea Dance was so very popular was the fact that so many gays worked as hair stylist or in the restaurant or other service industry in which they would usually have Mondays off back in those days. Since many guys were off on Mondays they could stay out all day and night on Sundays.

  28. T-Dance is alive and thriving every Sunday at Oscar’s Bar and Café in Palm Springs. Everybody is accepted and allowed to be themselves, reminiscing to great classic disco as well as more modern upbeat music as the T-Dance progresses through the afternoon into the evening. We have outrageous drag queens and fan dancing, poi dancing and of course flag spinning. I am a flagger myself and we have wonderful support from management and a terrific outdoor patio setting where all the fun takes place year round because of our glorious desert weather.

    There is another tradition that deserves mentioning that pretty much has fallen into history and that was “church”. When I was living in Los Angeles I was the church DJ at Greg’s Blue Dot Lounge, a bar modelled after the Tom of Finland’s character and his homoerotic appeal to the leather and Levis crowd in LA and became an international phenomenon. Church started promptly at 6:00 AM as our crowd filtered in from dancing all night at The Probe just the street. Bloody Mary cocktails dancing and lots of gospel disco and high energy music were the fare of the day and transitioned right into T-Dance in the afternoon until closing time Sunday night. Great traditions die hard, but I am happy T-Dance still survives to this day in many cities!

    1. Love Love Love the T-Dance at Oscar’s. The Parliament House T-Dance in Orlando Fla. was Amazing back in the eighties as well.

    2. My friends and I used to go to “church” all the time. They would wake me up and say, come on, we are going Greg’s!

  29. ROBB is a KNOB. Seriously he thinks he’s the greatest DJ out there because he DJ’s at StreetBar in Palm Springs. But he’s a lame ass bitter pill and always making negative comments about other clubs and DJs. Negativity gets you nowhere.

  30. Well not all is in the past. I’ve been doing a HUGE Sunday Tea Dance in the East Coast tradition in Chicago at Mary’s Attic for 3 years. We have a full house every event from those who remember the originals and from those kids who appreciate our history AND a Planter’s Punch.

  31. So happy to have experienced the many T dances New York City offered me in my youth. Ice Palace 57, The Underground, The Cock Ring, Uncle Charlies on East 38th street, The Ice Palace in Cherry Grove/ Fire Island, The Monster and the Boatel in The Pines. Being a fan dancer back in the day it was a glorious ending to a perfect weekend of underground dancing at 12 West ,Flamingo and The Saint! That history can never be repeated along with the creativity and energy that my generation created. I’m waiting for something new and better to come along.Still standing here waiting ………

  32. Back in the day, the best T-dance that I remember was at a club called Denver David’s. It was in Capital Hill which was where a huge population of gay men lived. I first went to David’s in 1980 when I was 20. I haven’t seen anything that even came close since then in Denver, although many clubs tried to recapture that scene up through the 1990s. I just found your website and loved the France Joli. It brought back great memories of the gay scene in Denver when I was dancing all night at the disco. And of the leathermen and their fans and percussion instruments that they played to enhance the experience. Thank you for giving us the history.

  33. This was an interesting article. I would also be interested in a history of the beer bust. In SF, this also took place on Sunday afternoons at the Eagle. Not sure if it’s still going on.

  34. I remember those fabbbbulous Sunday Tea Dances at the Endup AFTER dancing all night at the Trocadero. What an awesome time it was in those days. 🙂

    1. In Denver it was at a club called Davids 🙂 Then after Davids changed to the Metro, Tracks took over the tradition and had a tea dance on Sundays. We used to go to a club called the Fox Hole, and dance all Sunday afternoon drinking beer and then go over to Tracks around 5 or 6 pm and dance there until midnight drinking long island iced teas. I don’t know how we made it to work on Monday morning, but we did it on auto pilot and then repeated it the next weekend…

  35. The whole reason why Tea Dances have fallen by the wayside, is because the gays of today (A) are totally apathetic; (B) see no “need” to stand up and fight for *who* they are or what they believe in–especially their rights; and lastly, (D): because they can “cruise” and “meet” a man on the internet in 30 seconds flat…which is probably why most gay youths have absolutely no social graces.

    1. Matthew, some of what you say is true, but some is not. Not sure where you live, but here in Weho, the Tea Dance has become what they call Sunday Funday. Also, I guess you did not see the Resist March instead of the Pride parade, here in L.A. I am not sure how a Tea Dance was you standing up for what you are or believe in, that is just an odd analogy. But yes, the younger crowd tends to meet online, but hey, that is just the way it is now.

  36. Although you may be right about gay men adopting dancing apart to avoid the law, we didn’t start it. That would be Chubby Checker and “The Twist” – the first of many dance-apart songs like the Swim, etc.

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