There’s a scene in a recent episode of a popular British series where several of the lead characters go to a “thé dansant” in a nearby town. Skipping the French they used because they were terribly hoity-toity, the Tea Dance was a staple of English life for the best part of a century from the mid-1800s.
The Palm Court at The Waldorf Hilton in London was one of the more famous ones, and the term “Palm Court Orchestra” for a small group of musicians was coined after the bands employed for the Palm Court’s Tea Dances.
These dance parties were often held from mid-afternoon until evening, which sounds very odd to our modern sensibilities. If you were really lucky, you could go to a Garden Party first – from around noon until four – and then head straight to the tea dance, making seven or so hours of fun, frivolity, gossip, and endless tea.
And what was there to eat and drink? According to Emily Post’s 1922 book Etiquette, “Only tea, bouillon, chocolate, bread and cakes are served. There can be all sorts of sandwiches, hot biscuits, crumpets, muffins, sliced cake and little cakes in every variety that a cook or caterer can devise—whatever can come under the head of “bread and cake” is admissible; but nothing else, or it becomes a “reception,” and not a “tea.” … there are bowls or pitchers of orangeade or lemonade or “punch” (meaning in these days something cold that has fruit juice in it) … chocolate, already poured into cups and with whipped cream on top, is passed on a tray by a servant. Tea also poured into cups, not mixed but accompanied by a small pitcher of cream, bowl of sugar, and dish of lemon, is also passed on a tray.”
It makes one quite nostalgic to image seven hours of partying without the need for on-site security, calls to the police and paramedics standing by.
If you are feeling that nostalgia, the Palm Court London has re-introduced the occasional tea dance, as dance has made a comeback due of late to several top-rating TV shows.
See more articles by Robert Godden here.
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