Historically, tea was served in the afternoon, either with snacks (“low tea”) or with a full meal (“high tea”). High Tea eventually moved earlier in the day, sometimes replacing the midday “luncheon” and settled around 11 o’clock, becoming the forerunner of what we know as “brunch”. While tea dances enjoyed a revival in America after the Great War, The Great Depression of the 30s wiped them out.
LGBTQ, of course, we’re still largely underground in the 50s, but it was in these discreet speakeasies that social (non-partnered) dancing was evolving. It was illegal for men to dance with men, or for women to dance with women. In the event of a raid, people would quickly change partners to mixed couples. Eventually, this led to everyone dancing on their own.
By the late 60s, it was illegal for bars to ‘knowingly sell alcohol to homosexuals’ and besides many of the venues, there were not licensed as ‘nightclubs’ or to sell alcohol. To avoid attracting attention, afternoon tea dances were promoted.
The prosecution against same-sex dancing was still in effect and gay men were not allowed to dance together by law, so organizers were forced to institute ‘no touching’ rules. The only way it could happen was in a group. The line dance allowed men to dance together as long as there was at least one woman involved.
By the 1970s, after the Stonewall riots, disco music arrived, and the Tea Dance would evolve and grow into a phenomenon that all of Fire Island would find their way to.
Tea dances spread beyond New York and lasted into the 1990s regularly in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Provincetown, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among other cities.
As the LBGTQ community became more accepted and legally protected, the tea dances were replaced with nighttime club events such as circuit parties, while still existing at vacation destinations such as Fire Island.