The Tea Dance Is Part of NYC's LGBTQ Living History
Today, some LGBTQ millennials want more inclusive spaces that don’t involve alcohol or a dance floor, while others are bringing back queer nightlife as iconic queer spaces close in major cities. As a queer woman who loves to dance until my face sweats off but also enjoys a 10:30 PM bedtime, I’m at a crossroads on where I’m supposed to hang out.
Enter the Sunday tea dance, an almost-lost tradition LGBTQ people adapted as a time to enjoy each other’s company before going back to work on Monday. On late afternoons and into the early evenings, revelers can enjoy a cocktail and a spin on the dance floor—usually to deep cuts of disco—and go to sleep at 10 without bringing their hangover to work the next day. Cezanne Alam, a 30-year-old married banking professional living in Brooklyn, went to his first tea dance several years ago and loved hanging out with people in person versus online, sidestepping photo filters and meeting people late at night.
“Being 30 years old, I grew up in the gay culture that’s predominantly very web, Internet-based [with] Grindr, Scruff, those types of applications to meet other gay men and not face-to-face interactions, which is very different from what happened in the 80s and 90s,” says Alam. “The tea dance takes away all of that and helps me to go back to how things were before, when you could meet someone in broad daylight...You can actually have a conversation.”
One of the longest-running Sunday tea dances in New York City is at The Monster NYC, a legendary gay nightclub in the West Village. Lady Bunny, an iconic drag queen and DJ known for her oversized blond bouffant, spins disco records from 6 till 10 PM, whooping it up with attendees ranging from their mid-20s to late 50s. This Sunday tradition is all about putting the cell phone down and getting up on the dance floor.
“At the Monster, people are really in the moment and they’re not thinking, ‘[if] I videotape this person, I’ll impress my friends’,” says Lady Bunny. “You’re in the moment, you’re dancing, you’re having a ball.” She adds that young Broadway dancers come to The Monster to blow off steam and groove to music with more musicality than your average club.
Tea dances also have a radical, inclusive place in social justice history: providing space for LGBTQ people when they were criminalized for being themselves. Three years before the Stonewall Riots on June 28 and 29, 1969, gay New Yorkers were finally allowed to drink in the bars, but with a catch: Bars could lose their liquor licenses if they were found to be hosting gay people drinking, dancing, kissing members of the same sex and even taking someone home, behavior that was lumped into the criminal charge “disorderly conduct.”
The necessity of creating an alternative safe community space—and paying the rent—was the spark that first created the gay tea dance. In the late 60s, LGBTQ people were flocking to Fire Island/Cherry Grove where Michael Fesco ran a bar called The Ice Palace. Wondering how he was going to drum up more business on usually slow Sunday afternoons, Fesco remembered having high tea at 4 PM in England, where the bars would begin serving tea and crumpets. Cribbing from this and historically recognized tea dances, a tradition that was briefly revived in America from the late 1880s into the pre-WWII era, Fesco hosted the first tea dance in Cherry Grove where local drag queens served tea from a big silver pot and trays with delicate cups and saucers. Within a year, tea dances started popping up across the country. (Now, however, Lady Bunny says crumpets are a thing of the past, and the food stays in the realm of peanuts and popcorn and the occasional birthday cake—though she does add, “There’s always celery in Bloody Marys—I giggle that adding a vegetable to daytime drinking somehow adds a touch of health!”)
“A great many people look forward to going out to a tea dance because it’s early enough in the day that you can go and dance and be able to go home at a decent hour and be ready to go to work on Monday morning,” says Fesco.
Today, Fesco hosts Sea Tea, considered the only gay sailing tea dance in the United States. Going into his 22nd year hosting on the ship, he’s hoping to see more millennials come for the dancing and buffet, even mixing up the usual disco playlist this coming summer with scheduled 80s and 90s music nights and lowering the price for those under 26. He’s confident the moves will encourage more young people to get in real-time community with each other.
“I search for the best DJs I can find to bring them onboard and drag entertainment and we serve a dinner and we’re out until 10 PM,” says Fesco. “When the average person walks on the boat, they get a sense of feeling. People on the gangplank all love that they’re going on a cruise. They look back at the city and one of the great visuals on the water is to be able to look at New York City. It’s absolutely fantastic from the water.”
Whether by land, by sea or by disco, tea dances were—and still are—a naturally inclusive space for everyone to catch the groove. “Many people are trying to be inclusive because they really aren’t, and we don’t even need to try,” says Lady Bunny. “We are inclusive. If you can cut up on the dance floor, you are welcome.”