Tea Dances Bring Piece of LGBTQ History To Cincinnati

Jun 21, 2019

More than 40 bars and nightclubs that once catered to Cincinnati's LGBTQ community have disappeared over the decades. But a piece of gay history is now part of the city's present again: the Tea Dance.

"Today it's a celebration but it's a nod back in history when we had a lot of struggles," said Richard Cooke, founder and self-described chief fun officer of Tea Dance Cinci, which formed two years ago, and brings the Sunday afternoon dance parties to different establishments around town every month.

The idea that Cincinnati should have its own monthly tea dances came about during a conversation Cooke had with his "favorite bartender."

"And she said, 'What's a tea dance?' And I explained to her that it is deeply rooted in LGBTQ history, and it goes way back to the 1940s when it was illegal for gay people to dance together in public, and was illegal to serve gay people alcohol," Cooke said. "And clearly we've come a long way since then."

During the first Tea Dance Cinci event two years ago, Cooke said about 200 people showed up.

Now the events, which are held at different spots each month, draw upwards of 600 to 700.

On Sunday, June 23, part of Cincinnati Pride weekend, Cooke expects as many as 1,600 people to attend the dance at Music Hall.

Cooke looks at the tea dances as an extension of Cincinnati's queer social scene.

"I think we add to it. The nightlife is vibrant and developing," he said. "We're a daytime event. I see this as adding to the vibrancy and I think it's a good thing."

The disappearance of so many former mainstays of gay nightlife in Cincinnati, like the Dock, the Subway, Shirley's, Adonis, and Badlands, is often attributed to changing tastes and technology, with dating apps making it easier for gay people to meet each other.

But Cooke said there is a desire to reconnect the old way.

"We kind of lost that with the dating apps," he said. "We've done a bit of a 180. We've come back to people wanting to get together and have that excitement of meeting a person for the first time."

And, he said, it's still important for LGBTQ people to have their own spaces.

"I think we need a space that the LGBTQ population can say, this is my place," he said. "This is where we can be together. And, of course, we welcome our straight supporters, but this is our place.

"This is one time a month where we can be together."