Having a social life if you were gay or lesbian in mid-20th-century America was often perilous at best. In an era when it was often illegal for people of the same sex to dance together in public, police routinely harassed and raided gay bars, carting off patrons to jail on a variety of technically legitimate as well as trumped-up charges, ruining reputations, careers and lives.
But especially in enclaves beginning to form in New York, San Francisco, Key West and Provincetown, gays hit upon an ingenious workaround: the Tea Dance. Repurposing a high-society tradition that dated back to the 1800s, gays held Tea Dances as a way to mix and mingle without risking incarceration. If the cops were about to show up, men could quickly switch their male dance partners for female ones.
Oh, hello, Officer! What are we doing? Why, just having tea!
After decades of popularity as both meeting places and occasions to celebrate gay solidarity, Tea Dances began to disappear in 1990s as many in the LGBTQ community took to the Internet and, later, dating apps such as Grindr to find and meet each other. But the Tea Dance is making a comeback.
Particularly in Cincinnati, where the latest editionduring the city’s Pride Festival last month drew an impressive crowd of 1,400 people.
Now the party is coming to Lexington. Richard Cooke, the self-styled Chief Funtime Officer of the Tea Dance series in the Queen City, is bringing it to Lockbox, the elegant restaurant at the 21c Museum Hotel on Main Street, this Sunday.
“We’ve had phenomenal Tea Dances here, and now we’re expanding to Lexington,” says Cooke, a social fixture in Cincy along with his husband, Marty Wagner. “At our last event, we had six DJs, each of whom played a 60-minute set, as well as drag queens, burlesque dancers, cabaret stars and acrobats suspended from the ceiling. There was so much going on, people didn’t know where to look next. It was exhilarating.”
In the midst of this revelry, Cooke says, there was an air of celebration, of unity and pride, that’s missing online and on the apps. “It was a signal to folks that we have an amazing community, and that this is a place to meet people in a safe setting and still have a fabulous time.”
At Lockbox, there will dancing and cocktails in the cleared-out dining room to house music by Cincy DJs Ben and Milkshake. There will also be a special snack menu by Lockbox executive chef Cody Derosett, including small plates of sweet-and-spicy fried chicken, toast made with pimento cheese on char-grilled sourdough, and house-smoked trout on a crunchy cracker with benedictine spread and fresh dill.
“It’s a party, and you’re there to dance and socialize and hang out, not really to eat,” Derosett says. “So the food is there to snack on, not to get full on. But it’s still going to be tasty.”
If you go: Tea Dance at Lockbox
Where: 21c Museum Hotel, 167 W. Main St., Lexington
When: 4 p.m. July 28
Tickets: Admission is free