On a recent breezy Sunday afternoon at Over-the-Rhine’s Rosedale, Richard Cooke greets a guest as they enter the bar: “Welcome home,” he says. As the afternoon goes on, more people flood in, many of whom Cooke meets with the same phrase. Cocktails are served, a live DJ spins tunes, people hug one another, laugh and chat and several snap pictures in front of the rainbow flag strung on Rosedale’s patio. Together, they share this space.
This is Tea Dance Cincinnati. Organized by Cooke and his husband Marty Wagner, the inaugural dance took place in April 2017. On June 23 — during Pride weekend — they’ll throw their biggest Tea Dance yet at the Music Hall Ballroom. And come July 28, Cooke will help host the first Tea Dance in a different city at Lockbox at 21c Museum Hotel Lexington. (That collaboration manifested through a partnership with Cincinnati’s 21c, which had previously hosted a dance.)
An LGBTQ tradition from the 1940s and ’50s, Tea Dances historically functioned as a way for same-sex couples to openly, yet discreetly, be together. It wouldn’t be until the Stonewall Riots of 1969 — a vital moment in LGBTQ history that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — that the gay rights movement would begin to move into the mainstream. And with it, the dances.
When Cooke revived the tradition in Cincinnati in 2017 — coming in the form of monthly events held at different bars across the city — he never thought in his wildest dreams that they would become as popular as they are.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into, to be honest,” Cooke says. “My intent, really, was to create a gathering spot for our LGBTQ community. What I’m seeing now — since we have so many people that come — it tells me that we have a very large, vibrant, diverse LGBTQ community in the city. And there’s a real need for this on a regular basis.”
Scanning the patronage at the recent Rosedale event, that belief is reflected in the crowd. When I spoke with Cooke last summer for a previous story on the Tea Dances, he said that one of his goals was to serve the underrepresented local LGBTQ community.
“I truly mean that. I support it. I fully encourage it. I’ve reached out to members across the spectrum in the community,” he says. “I look for ambassadors. I take advice from queer people, lesbians, African-American LGBTQ people — so I’m continuing to look for supporters and champions and collaborate with them. And I think that’s how we ensure that our Tea Dances are inclusive and diverse as well.”
On June 23, Tea Dance Cincinnati will unfold in the Music Hall Ballroom for what Cooke says will be their biggest event and highest expected attendance to date — he says they’re expecting upward of 1,000 guests.
Held during Pride weekend, they’re proportionately upping the event’s entertainment, too: There will be six DJs — Thaddeus, Identity, Ben Welham, Milkshake, Gabriela Nine and Jacoby — placed throughout the space, each playing 30-minute sets; and drag queen Penny Tration will act as emcee, with performances from the Cin City Burlesque dance troupe, a flash mob from DANCEFIX and acts from aerial acrobats. Plus, you can sip on signature cocktails designed by local mixologist Molly Wellmann.
Like their other monthly events, the Pride Tea Dance is free and no ticket is required. As long as you’re 21 and older, you’re welcome to party it up. Branching off from their usual dances is an option to upgrade to a $25 VIP ticket, the proceeds of which will go toward ArtsWave Pride. The ticket includes reserved seating, a cocktail in a take-home souvenir cup and light bites.
Artists Joe Rigotti, Carla Lamb and Pam Kravetz are helping create the decorations. On a recent phone call, the latter recalled her experience at the first Tea Dance Cooke ever threw at Mr. Pitiful’s in Over-the-Rhine.
“I walked in and was totally blown away by the amount of people,” Kravetz says. “At that point, it was pretty much word of mouth and it was just packed. The energy was electric. People were dancing and it was a super diverse crowd. It was crazy fun in the middle of a Sunday afternoon and I fell in love with it.”
Kravetz would meet Cooke at a later dance, where she told him, “Anytime you need anything, I’m there for you.” Flash-forward to present day, and she’s doing just that. As described by Kravetz, the décor for the Pride Tea Dance will include “wonky, crazy and wonderful” balloon installations, 40 disco balls and a Pride-themed photobooth.
“There’s such a beauty and elegance and history to the Music Hall Ballroom,” she says. “I was super intrigued by how we could take such a beautiful and historically relevant space and create this larger than life — a little kitschy, a little campy, very sexy — afternoon dance. That’s kind of where we were with this.”
The Cincinnati Bombshells guerilla knitting crew — a group Kravetz is a part of — will “yarn bomb” the trees outside of Music Hall, rainbow pom-poms and all. Out front will be Swift Movement, a parkour team, activating the space. And don’t forget to look down: The sidewalk will be decorated with chalk.
“As soon as you come past Washington Park, you’re just going to see an explosion of color and energy,” Kravetz says.
For those planning to attend, Cooke says newcomers will see the biggest and finest Tea Dance so far. And they should expect it to be as much — not only is it a celebration of Pride, but this year is also the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Of that landmark, Cooke says it’s important to recognize the transgender women of color who stood up on the front lines 50 years ago, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Harassed by local police for simply meeting together at New York’s Stonewall Inn, LGBTQ patrons fought back against discrimination and demanded rights.
“It’s really encouraging that during this milestone we’re celebrating in some of the most iconic buildings in the city,” Cooke says. “And that we’re welcomed and supported in the city.”
Kravetz, who has participated in the Pride parade for several years as an ally, echoes that sentiment. This year, she says it feels like the whole city is looking beyond the parade and afternoon festival and into expanded events.
Regardless, at this elevated Tea Dance or one of their recurring events, Cooke says attendees are made to feel at home and appreciated.
“Tea Dances are not only celebrations,” he says. “But they’re also spots where the LGBTQ community can feel they can gather on a frequent basis to meet with other people, connect, see their friends, make new friends.”
That concept, rooted in LGBTQ history, is not something Cooke wants to lose sight of.
“It’s a journey. We’re on this journey and we’re not done,” he says. “Each time people come to (a) Tea Dance, it’s a reminder of our community, our solidarity and that we’re all in this together to become equal citizens.”
The Pride Tea Dance will take place at Over-the-Rhine’s Music Hall Ballroom from 4-8 p.m. June 23. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. and the event is 21+. Admission is free; VIP is $25. More info: facebook.com/teadancecinci.