Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone


Posted in Tea Dances by sheelanagigcomedienne on September 26, 2011


I checked out what was available on the tea dance scene in London, having decided that I was going to go along to the monthly tea dance in the Grand Hall at Battersea Art Centre to research what was available for those of us of an uncertain age. I am also writing this for the Battersea Society newsletter.

The variety and range of the tea dances in London was quite fascinating.  At one end of the price range are the ones provided by Mr Wonderful where recorded music is played. which includes the Battersea event. This is very affordable at £ 4.00 with tea and biscuits included .

Tea dances are  back in fashion although they never fully disapperared . A tea dance is an afternoon or early-evening dance. The function evolved from the concept of the afternoon  tea and , according to Wikipedia J. Pettigrew traces its origin to the French colonisation of Morocco.  Books on Victorian Era etiquette such as Party-giving on Every Scale, (London,1880) included detailed instructions for hosting such gatherings and  noted “Afternoon dances are seldom given in London, but are a popular form of entertainment in the suburbs, in garrison-towns, watering-places, etc.”

The usual refreshments then  were  tea and coffee,  ices, champagne-cup and claret-cup, fruit, sandwiches, cake and biscuits. Even after the introduction of the  phonograph the expected feature was a live  orchestra – often referred to as a palm court orchestra – or a small band playing light classical music. The types of dances performed during tea dances included  waltza , tangos and, by the late 1920s, the Charleston.

A Time Out article in 2008 stated that:  “Tea dances are far more serene, romantic affairs and are chock full of elderly folk whizzing around the floor. Leave your looks of pity at the door and expect to be wiped off the dancefloor by participants 50 years your elder. The older people know what they’re doing at a tea dance.’ 

At the top end is the The Waldorf  which costs £65.00-  where , according to their listing: You’ll have an opportunity to step back in time to an age of elegance when evening dress was obligatory in the ballroom. Sit down to enjoy a contemporary afternoon tea with a variety of finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones with Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry jam, along with delicate home made pastries and your choice of tea infusions or coffee.

A live five-piece band will entertain you with traditional ballroom music, while you dance away your Sunday afternoon. It’s a truly authentic, timeless experience.

Then there is the Royal Opera House – a throwback to 1910 when the tango swept London and afternoon tea dances were an essential part of any society person’s calender. When the Opera House was a dance hall during the War, its tea dances were legendary. It revives them once a month, and – unbelievably – they’re only £10.50.
City workers won’t be left out for, for they can swing by Spitalfields Markets on the last Friday of every month for the Covent Garden Dance Orchestra’s free afternoon tea dance.

Here are some etiquette rules gleaned from a Time Out article.

Leave your stilettos at home Spiky heels wreak havoc on dancefloors.
Don’t overindulge There are usually allocated portions of cake.
Dance in the same direction as everyone else.
Don’t get drunk It’s a tea dance, not a beer dance.
Always dance with a partner Even of the same gender.

This is from the Eton tea dance website.

Floorcraft & etiquette

At our dance events all dancers are expected to respect the best standards of floorcraft and consideration for other dancers. This helps everyone to enjoy an afternoon of pleasant dancing. We expect everyone to follow these rules:

Please do:
Try to use the ‘Cabeceo’ to request & accept dances.’Merge’ into the line of dance without interrupting other dancers.Keep a constant flow of movement around the dance floor.Dance in a constant lane around the edge of the dance floor.Keep your distance to the couple in front, and avoid overtaking.
Apologise briefly if you bump into other dancers.
Aim to dance with one partner for each ‘Tanda’ of 3 or 4 tracks.Leave the dance floor during the “Cortina” between Tandas.
Please don’t:
Step or travel against the line of dance.Dance in the middle of the floor. Dance in one spot and obstruct the line of dance.
Use steps or movements that risk kicks or collisions.
Stop during the dance to chat.
Make sudden changes of direction or change lanes
.Use excessive space with show moves.Teach each other steps.Stand or sit obstructing the dance floor.Walk across the dance floor.

OUCH This sounds like very strict instructions from a Ms Whiplash.

There were about 150 attending the tea dance at Battersea Grand Hall. Most of them were followers of Mr Wonderful who runs such events all over London and Kent. They all seemed to know the dances and had evolved line dance versions as well as couple dancing. Most people had made their by public transport and were not from Battersea/Wandsworth. There were no coaches/minibuses with groups from residential homes, day centres or pensioner groups or clubs. The door staff said they recognised most of the same people coming back. One reason I was interested to go along was to see how Battersea Art Centre was catering for older people in the Borough in its programming. I guess the monthly tea dance is their token effort! The price is very cheap and the tea and biscuits were included although there were no biscuits left  when I got my cup of tea.. Oh dear- some greedy folk. I concluded that they should charge for the refreshments and give greater choice. Apparently, they just break even. Yet it does seem a shame that an arts centre isn’t providing a tea dance with live music. I am sure there are some of us who would be prepared to pay more to hear a live trio.

I went to the Royal Opera House tea dance on Friday 23rd September. It was held in the Paul Hamlyn Hall which is a majestic atrium and ballroom. It was splendid to have a live 8 piece band and to watch the dancers so evidently enjoying themselves. People were elgenatly dressed and of course, mainly of an uncertain age.  Most women wore high heeled shoes and there were some lovely dresses on display. Most of  the people there came in couples, with a few small groups from dance classes. Most dancers knew what they were doing. There were one or two ‘show-offs’.  It seems that booking is essential and that they get booked up as soon as possible. With tea and a plate of three biscuits this was good value for money and there is a bar.

After this I wish that Battersea Art Centre would hold a tea dance with live music. I reckon there would be a demand for one and that more local people would attend as well as others who want their music live in an elegant venue and ARE prepared to pay a reasonable price for it. I shall go and ask them.

Perhaps, some readers might be prepared to try out the Waldorf tea dance in the interest of research. Tell me about it if you do.


One Response

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  1. kieran said, on October 17, 2013 at 3:27 am

    Very Good Article But The Tandas Do Not feature in Tea Dances They Come From Argentine Tango Dances. I am a Young Person Who Goes To Tea Dance and Has Been To More Than 70 of Them. I agree With The Live Music of Battersea Arts Centre. Have You Visted Greenwich tea dance or The Ragroof Theatre Tea Dances.

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