Londoners are once again tripping the light fantastic (and enjoying afternoon tea) at tea dances.
By Jane Pettigrew
Tea and dancing have long been happy partners. When the pleasure gardens of 18th-century London lured people through their gates with music, firework displays, masquerades, and dancing, tea with bread and butter was included in the ticket price and provided welcome refreshment. When wealthy Georgians made their annual visits to spa towns such as Bath, Buxton, and Harrogate, tea was always available at evening dances held in assembly rooms and in winter gardens. Jane Austen highlighted these entertainments in many of her novels.
As afternoon tea gained importance through the latter half of the 19th century, hostesses organized a variety of amusements for their tea-party guests. The Etiquette of Modern Society, published by Ward Lock in 1881, states, “Refreshments, both at ceremonious teas and At Homes are served in the dining-room, wither the guests repair during the intervals of music, dancing, recitations, or the dramatic entertainments.” In 1884, Mrs. Armstrong, another etiquette writer, told readers, “Refreshments are going on all the afternoon, and gentlemen take the ladies to the tearoom during the intervals between the dances.”
When in 1912 an exotic and risqué dance called the tango arrived in London from Buenos Aires, dancing at teatime acquired an even more seductive and tantalizing nuance. The first tango Londoners saw was performed at The Gaiety Theatre in a show called The Sunshine Girl, and almost overnight, everyone was clamoring to learn the steps and show them off on dance floors. Theatres, restaurants, and hotels quickly recognized the frenzy and rearranged tables to allow space for dancing, organized tango dance classes and clubs, and hired bands to provide the moody Latin music in tea lounges and palm courts. Going out to tea in tearooms and hotel lounges was already a fashionable part of Edwardian life, but tango teas caused quite a stir. The Daily Express reported: “Tango teas are becoming so great a craze that one wonders if Mrs. Brown of Brixton [i.e., Mrs. Average] will ever again be content to stay at home for plain drawing room tea without the accompaniment of a few tangos and a dress parade or two. Yesterday, among London’s scores of similar entertainments, came the inauguration of tango teas at the Palace Theatre.”
The Waldorf Hotel in the Aldwych quickly became famous for its weekly tea dances, as The Dancing Times reported in June 1913: “The ‘Tango’ is graceful, decorous and worthy of a place in any ball-room. If you doubt me, go to one of the ‘Thés Dansants’ organized by the ‘Boston Club’ on Wednesday afternoons at The Waldorf Hotel, and you will be charmed.”
The idea of dancing at teatime captured society’s attention, and American etiquette writer Emily Post told readers in 1922: “The afternoon tea with dancing is usually given to ‘bring out’ a daughter, or to present a new daughter-in-law.… After ‘receiving’ with her mother or mother-in-law for an hour or so, as soon as the crowd thins a little, the débutante or bride may be allowed to dance. The younger people, as soon as they have shaken hands with the hostess, dance. The older ones sit about, or talk to friends or take tea.”
The popularity of tea dances continued through the 1920s and ’30s, but with two world wars and changing lifestyles, daily life left little time for indulgent afternoon tango teas. The Waldorf continued its tea dances until 1939, when a bomb shattered the glass roof of the Palm Court. There was no more light tripping of waltz steps or cha-cha-chas on the famous marble floor until 1982, when tea dances were reintroduced on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. The Ritz London quickly followed suit.
A scattered program of tea dances continued throughout the UK during the 1990s and into the new century. The events at the Ritz in the ’80s lasted only a year or so, and when the Waldorf changed hands in 2003, the glorious weekend tea dances, sadly, came to an end, and the doors to the magnificent Palm Court closed. But in the past five years, the bubbling delight and enthusiasm for afternoon tea and a new energetic passion for dancing have rekindled interest, and tea dancing is suddenly all the rage. A tentative revival at the Waldorf to celebrate the hotel’s centenary in 2008 was announced online:
“… and with Tango Tea we’re offering people the chance to step back in time to an age of elegance.… Guests will also be entertained with shows from professional dancers before being invited on to the dance floor themselves.”
The success of that special afternoon led to the current monthly events, which are usually fully booked and entice visitors from all over the world.
But not all tea dances are quite so grand, and afternoon dancers at other venues are quite happy with a refreshing cup of tea and a biscuit to keep them going for two or three hours of Latin, ballroom, and sequence routines. In the wonderful glass-domed Paul Hamlyn Hall (formerly the Floral Hall) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a cup of tea is included in the ticket price for the monthly tea dances. And announcements on websites for an ever-burgeoning list of tea dances in parks, civic centers, market squares, town halls, dance studios, and clubs all over the country always include a promise of tea and cake or biscuits. Some events are organized to raise money for charity and some, to encourage older people to exercise.
Just mention that you’ve been to a tea dance and the response is almost always an eager, “I want to go, too!” And so the number of tea dancers grows, the venues multiply, and more and more people are benefiting from the healthy combination of exercise and tea. The Dancing Times told its readers in May 1913: “What a happy innovation on such an afternoon would be the ‘tea-dance’! Men usually fight shy of the ladies’ tea-hour, but few of them can resist the pleasure of a waltz or a Boston; so try the tea-dance idea!”
Jane Pettigrew is an international tea expert, who has written 13 books on the subject. A former tearoom owner, she is a much-sought-after consultant to tea businesses and hotels, a conference speaker, and a tea educator. Although her travels take her around the globe, she resides in London.