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Waltz Around a Tea Table

by Jane Pettigrew




For the Victorians, the afternoon tea party was an absolutely crucial part of social life. Ladies called on their friends for small intimate drawing room teas at which a group of four or five guests caught up with the latest gossip, sipped tea and nibbled a sandwich or two. Or they gathered in their tens to even hundreds to chatter and drink tea together at grand tea receptions held in the vast houses of the leisured and idle rich. To make tea-time events more fun, hostesses often arranged for a little light entertainment to brighten the event - a piano recital, a poetry reading, a performance by an opera singer, or card playing and gambling. And in the 1880s, 'dancing on the carpet' became the latest tea-time trend.

In 1913, an edition of Dancing Times suggested that the quirky addition of dancing to afternoon tea events resulted from the French colonial experience in North Africa. The article claimed that "Among society ladies in Morocco the custom holds that when calls are made, the hostess entertains her visitors to coffee, whilst maidens attached to the house dance for the visitors' pleasure. Very often also the hostess herself dances to amuse her guests. French official families, struck by the novelty of the idea, adopted it; and at afternoon tea a gentle waltz around the tea-table became a recognized fashion." Whether the ritual really traveled from Africa to Paris and then to London is impossible to know. It is perfectly possible that a little refined dancing happened as a natural occurrence at English afternoon gatherings. Whatever it was that provoked the trend, dancing at tea-time certainly became a popular activity and books on etiquette started to include instructions as to how to arrange rooms and furniture for these occasions.

In 1884, Marie Bayard included a chapter on the Etiquette of Carpet Dances in her book, Hints on Etiquette. She explained how the tearoom should be set up for such an event and wrote, "The back dining room, or study, is generally arranged as a tearoom, for the guests to enter on arriving, and in small houses the ladies will also leave their cloaks there. A table must be arranged on one side, with a table cloth, cups, and saucers, tea and coffee, cut bread and butter, and cakes, and a maid must be stationed behind this to attend, while another maid assists the ladies to take off their wraps." She then explained what to serve: "the refreshments necessary for a dance of this kind, in addition to tea and coffee (which must go on all the evening till supper-time) are claret-cup, ices, lemonade. And sherry, with or without soda-water."

Another writer on etiquette, Mrs. Armstrong, told her readers that "refreshments are going on all the afternoon, and gentlemen take the ladies to the tearoom during the intervals between the dances. The lady's maid pours out the tea ... the edibles consist of bread-and-butter and cakes, though some hostesses add sandwiches, ices and fruit."

Dancing at tea-time continued to be quite a demur and elegant part of afternoon tea parties into the first decade of the 20th century. And then a new dance took London by storm and triggered a totally new approach to afternoon dances. The Argentine Tango, having first driven Parisian society into a frenzy, arrived in London in 1910. The first performance of it was on stage in a play called The Sunshine Girl at the Gaiety Theatre and as soon as they had seen the extravagant and exotic steps, everyone wanted to learn to dance this exciting Latin dance. Clubs and classes were established all over London and soon, London was reverberating to the syncopated, sometimes stilted rhythm of the Tango. The risqué, erotic steps of the Latin version of the dance were certainly modified so as not to shock too much, as a comment in Dancing Times indicates: "The original tango may have been a voluptuous and indecorous dance. That does not prevent the present edition of it being decorous, refined and graceful..." The same journal explained, "The 'Tango' is graceful, decorous and worthy of a place in any ballroom. 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." So the afternoon tea dance, with the Tango as its central theme, continued as a private event in grand houses, but also moved out into theatres, hotels and restaurants and became public events.

Tea dances were taking place all over the capital and in the provincial towns. Social columns reported that "private 'Thés Dansants' are very much the rage just now in London houses, and the Tango is the principal dance on the programme..." while Beatrice Crozier in her book The Tango and How to Dance it, listed tango clubs and events taking place in London, Scarborough, Brighton, Newcastle, and other town all over England, and she even referred to tango dancing on roller skates at London's "Queen's Rink, Earls Court and at the Palais de Danse". She explained that for tea events at the Waldorf Hotel in London, tickets were available at the door and cost five shillings for tea and dancing, and three shillings for tea only. Once in the white and gold ballroom, "little parties of from two to six can sit and enjoy a most excellent tea between the dances, or remain throughout the afternoon watching the others dance." Newspapers and journals now started to report, "Tango! Tango! Tango! We are having nothing but tango here now... We have Tango matinees, Tango teas, Tango suppers... I wonder will it last? I discussed the point with Professor Duque at one of his weekly Tango teas, which are always crowded with quite a cosmopolitan gathering of French, South Americans, English, and visitors from the States..."

The craze for tea dances continued into the 1920s, but for the fashionable young set, cocktails and the Charleston were the next trend and took over from refined tango teas. The Waldorf continued its tea dances until 1939 when a German bomb caused the glass roof of the Palm Court to shatter and frivolities such as tea dances were cancelled. It was not until 1982 that the hotel once again became the venue for London's best known tea dances. Today, every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, the foot-tapping music of The Waldorfians tempts colorful couples away from their scones and clotted cream onto the marble dance floor and into the whirling steps of the Waltz, tango, quickstep and the 'Tea For Two' cha cha cha. The Savoy Hotel has also recently introduced tea dances that take place on Sunday afternoons and in the elegant Riverside Terrace, visitors savor every crumb of the contents of a three tier cake stand and endless cups of tea and then work off at least a few of the calories on the dance floor.

If you're ever in London, don't forget to include a tea dance in your itinerary. As Dancing Times said 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 of a Boston; so try the tea-dance idea...!"