It’s a Sunday afternoon, but power Pop weaves through Over-the-Rhine’s Ziegler Park — faint, but pulsating. The sound can be traced to Three Points Brewery. Inside, hundreds of people dance and chat, craft brews in hand; some attendees lounge on the edge of the bar’s open-air window. They’re all here for the same reason: It’s Time for Another Tea Dance.
The tea dance is a revived LGBTQ tradition that dates back to the 1940s and ’50s. Richard Cooke and his husband Marty Wagner brought them to Cincinnati in April 2017 with new life. Each month, the dances unfold at a different bar, but always on a Sunday afternoon. (The next event is 4 p.m. Sept. 9 in Washington Park.)
Historically, tea dances functioned as an event in which gay couples could openly dance with one another. In the 1940s and ’50s it was illegal for same-sex couples to dance and touch in public, so they had to go underground.
“That’s how the tea dances really started, in these tea rooms where same-sex couples could meet, socialize and dance. Back then it was a refined affair,” Cooke says. “Nice music, maybe a string quartet, there’d be some dancing and if the police came they would scramble and opposite-sex couples would be dancing.”
It wasn’t until the Stonewall Riots of 1969 — a series of violent demonstrations between the LGBTQ community and police sparked by a police raid of a gay club in Greenwich Village in New York City — that the modern gay rights movement began to surface into the mainstream. And with it, the dances.
Cooke says that in bigger cities, like NYC or San Francisco, they’d have bigger afternoon events. Though he didn’t come out until he was 30, he recalls going to dances in Chicago and the Key West, the latter of which he still frequents.
Now, he says Cincinnati is more inclusive than it once was; Cooke credits initiatives by city council for that.
“There was space that really opened up that allowed it to flourish and be successful,” Cooke says of the dances, which draw in hundreds each month. “I think they’re doing their part to reinforce that this is a welcoming and great city.”
In the past, Cooke says the dances were mainly white, gay men. When he decided to bring the tradition back, he wanted that to change. One of Cooke’s goals was to serve the underrepresented LGBTQ community.
“And he’s done that,” says Will Walters, a 20-something attendee and friend of Cooke.
“That’s why I love this because it brings everyone together in one night, and it should be like that all the time,” Walters says. “I’ve lived around the country and seen what it’s like and I love it. But I love Cincinnati...I was born here, grew up here and I can see it happening here. I just want people to see that.”
At Three Points, Walters came with a group of friends after work. When you look around the brewery space, a spectrum of identities can be seen.
“You don’t have to worry. Just come to a place where you can be yourself. Who cares if you’re a little bit bigger or if you’re wearing this or that, nobody cares,” Walters says. “You’re human. We’re all hanging out and having fun together and that’s all that matters.”
As Cooke weaves through the crowded party at Three Points, multiple patrons stop to hug him or kiss him on the cheek.
And this isn’t just a shebang for older generations, rather Cooke wanted young people — maybe for the first time — to experience the dances.
“It’s wonderful seeing the younger generation chatting, networking and mixing with the older generation,” he says with a smile. “I love to see that.”
But they also spread love to businesses across the city, hoping that attendees can discover new places that Cincinnati has to offer. In that, it’s a symbiotic relationship: bars get business and the LGBTQ community and allies can come together.
As the months go on, Cooke says the tea dances gain popularity. Nearly 400-500 attend each. In August, there were two tea dance events — one at Three Points and another at Aladdin’s Eatery.
Times may be a-changin, but most bars cater to the cisgender, heterosexual population. Cooke says that the queer community can fit in there, but he believes it’s also important to have spaces where the LGBTQ population is predominant.
That was the inspiration behind the first tea dance. Cooke and his friends used to gather at a now-closed OTR bar Neons; when it shuttered in December 2016, they scattered. The bar staff that Cooke’s friends grew to love went to different bars and there was no longer a common stomping ground.
“We were lamenting that last February in Mr. Pitiful’s on a Sunday afternoon where one of our bartender friends (Laura Switzer) was now working,” Cooke says. He told Switzer that he missed everyone gathering, so he told her about the tea dances. Two months later, the now-popular event was born at Mr. Pitful’s.
“My theory is that, we’ve almost done a 360 with these social media apps,” Cooke says. “People are now craving for connections, friendships and safe encounters.”
As music wafts in and out of Three Points, the place feels unified by a common bond of free expression. Everything goes here. One man dances with his walker, another in a Geisha-style dress. They raise their hands under purple-hued lights and afternoon sun leaks through open windows.
“These people mean something to me,” Walters says. “Even if I don’t know them. I love seeing people have a good time.”
UPDATE: Due to rain, Sept. 9's Tea Dance will be held in Memorial Hall. The next Tea Dance will be held 4 p.m. Sept. 9 in Washington Park. More info: facebook.com/teadancecinci.