SNP’s word(s) of the day: Tea Dance

Illustration by Lewis Mirrett
Illustration by Lewis Mirrett

Word(s): Tea Dance

Meaning: originally, a swinging singles party in the ages Victorian through Jazz; today, it’s more of a “T is for tranny” thing.

Usage: Tynomi Banks killed it at the Tea Dance.

You should know it because: In a week when stateside news is dominated by Tea Party(ish) politics, it’s fun to remember there are other kinds of tea partiers, ones who are more than happy to raise the roof—and the debt ceiling along with it.

Let me explain. In the 1880s, upper-classy people in England and France decided, accurately, that teatime was boring. Plus, they had their fair share of refined carbs to burn. And so was born the Tea Dance: all the single ladies got ‘pon de lawn and the gents gently dipped them to a reasonable altitude.

This delightful afternoon habit went on until the Great Depression, which, when you think about it, is a long time to be dancing sober. Jazz shook it all up, and by the ’50s, rock ‘n’ roll had shredded all desire to dance in a polite and tea-timely manner.

But in the next decade a new singles scene was born. New York’s Fire Island was a summertime, semi-clandestine gay resort, and in the ’60s—a time of free love, sure, if you were hetero—they revived “tea dances.” Barred from liquor licenses, they had their gaiety in the afternoon. And as dudes weren’t allowed to touch while dancing, they invented the hot-footed, shoulder-rolling solo style you can see in any club anywhere ever. When the tea dance went downtown, say around the ’70s, it got a cooler/more American/not ridiculously poncey name: the T-dance. These go down in Villages all over, from Barcelona to San Fran.

Saturday eve I went to my first T-dance in Montreal, where life is a 24-hour cinq à sept and there is never not a street festival, at least in the summer. It was Pride, or, as they say, Diverscite, and the T-dance was no small deal. At first it was more spectacular than participatory; no one could compete with the lip-synching, air-grinding supertrannies on stage. There were foot-high heels. There were crop tops and crops. There was a four-part Rihanna medley. There was also a million-year-old man with neon hair extensions wearing only a lime Speedo, love beads, and glitter: Rip Van Twinkle? Basically, it was the best.Then it turned into a street rave. There were no crustless cucumber sandwiches at this tea dance, but there were lots with sausage, if you know what I mean.

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