Sunday Tea Dances are back in fashion, fostering community and benefiting charity.
Until 1993, Section 4-37 of Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control codes warned business owners that “a bar’s license may be suspended or revoked if the bar has become a meeting place and rendezvous for users of narcotics, drunks, homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps, panderers, gamblers or habitual law violators.”
The threat to the queer community in the commonwealth was far from theoretical. In 1969, Renee’s and Rathkellers’ — two gay hotspots — were both shut down by Richmond Police after eyewitness testimony from an undercover ABC agent described “men wearing makeup, embracing and kissing in the café.”
The homophobic harassment and persecution proved so intense that police would often stand on a ladder at bars and shine a floodlight on men they deemed as dancing too close to each other. To evade the hate, in the 1960s LGBTQ+ people began organizing tea parties. As daytime events where pastels and effeminate behavior were not just tolerated but standard, “Sunday Tea Dances” allowed queer people a safe space to gather and avoid the scrutiny of state.
Although such events got their start on Fire Island, a gay mecca off the coast of New York City, tea dances quickly spread down the East Coast. As attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people began to shift in the 1970s, the dances began to look more like parties. In the 1980s, they evolved again into fundraising powerhouses against the AIDS epidemic.
After disappearing for a couple of decades, last year Richmonders Davon Wise and Chris Smith revived the dances for a new generation seeking inclusive spaces and a sense of community. The popularity of the duo’s initial “High T” last July has since spawned two monthly sunday tea dances: Snatch’d Sundays and High Tea Society.
The last Sunday of every month at 6 p.m., Angel Hernandez and Andrew Drake begin offering Bingo Beer Company patrons the chance to get snatch’d with jello shots and $5 drink specials; the proceeds go to Nationz Foundation and Health Brigade, respectively, thanks to the generosity of Smirnoff and Tito’s. Virginia Pride sponsored the duo’s tea dance decorations, and ever since, the events have been raising roughly $2,000 per party to support those organizations’ testing, treatment, and sexual health outreach.
Their next Snatch’d later this month on Sunday, Aug. 28 will be a throwback night themed “From then till now.” The dance will kick off at 6 p.m. and slowly cycle through each decade of music till today. The event’s organizers are encouraging guests to dress up in outfits that pay tribute to their favorite decade. The breadth of the theme is an intentional ploy to cast as wide a net as possible.
“We want to build bridges with other communities and invite them to party with us for a great cause,” explains Drake. “Tea dances are historically LGBTQ events, but we want to include everyone,” adds Hernandez. “We’ve grown as a city and as a gay community to now have events that are for everybody, not just for gays only.”
Although the September Snatch’d Sunday may be one of the biggest parties of the year, as the official closer party to Virginia Pride’s “Endless Summer of Pride” season, the events Hernandez and Drake organize are about far more than a good time.
“We don’t want people to look at the LGBTQ community as just about partying and in-it-for-ourselves,” Hernandez says. “We have a mission to look out for others. I, myself, relied upon Nationz Foundation’s food pantry when I was out of [a] job to make ends meet, so it only makes sense for us to give back to them and Health Brigade, since both of those organizations are there for us.”
After getting into the tea dance scene via Wise and Smith last year, Mariea Terrell will launch her own breakaway event later this month titled High Tea Society. To celebrate the recent release of Beyoncé’s incredibly queer-inspired album, “Renaissance,” the party’s theme is “Church Girl” — a single dedicated to Southern girls who aren’t scared of a little sin.
DJ Carter B will blast Beyoncé all day at PBR in the Fan while guests enjoy a photo booth, drinks, and three local drag performers: Melanin Monroe, Javon Love Lopez, and Blake Deadly. A portion of the proceeds will go to Black Pride RVA. Starting at 1 p.m. on the 28th, Terrell hopes attendees of her tea dance will transition over to Snatch’d Sundays at Bingo once her event ends at 7 p.m.
“Richmond is bigger than people think, so the more tea dances the better,” according to Terrell.