Blackpool …..? Hubby kept telling me about this city on the west coast of England. Growing up he had heard much about this seaside tourist destination but had never been there. Really? Blackpool? Just the name conjures up images of splintered boardwalks, gaping piers held up by rusted columns , graffiti-covered buildings, and old, yellowed posters on every signpost. Not so! (The city was actually named Blackpool because of the color of the water that ran over the peat bogs before draining into the Irish Sea.)
So what does any of this have to do with tea dances?? Blackpool was a sleepy, little seaside village until the advent of railroads in the mid 1800’s. People started to believe that the sea was not something to be feared, but could actually be healthful. Wealthy merchants, landowners and aristocrats began to travel hundreds of miles to ‘bathe’ in these waters. They would also drink the seawater as a curative. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realize the economic potential of turning this little fishing village, in particular, into a seaside resort destination. Soon hotels began to be built. Street lighting was installed. One of the country’s first amusement parks was erected. And with more development came more people. Blackpool soon became the most prominent seaside destination for the north of England, and subsequently all of Europe.
By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea,
You and I, you and I, oh! how happy we’ll be …
This was the late 1800’s when England was enthralled with ‘tea’. Among the upper classes, ‘tea’ had become the nucleus for social gatherings everywhere, throughout this country and Europe. No longer was it just a beverage. It was now an activity. Also taking the world by storm at that time was the “dance”. From London to Edinburgh to Newcastle to Blackpool, dance halls were opening everywhere. These dance halls were not ordinary rooms, but were elegantly decorated galleries where membership was required … where tea and small sandwiches were served on the finest china … where for an hour or two you would forget your troubles and dance ever so graciously to the band that was playing all the newest songs. London had The Four Hundred Club and the Waldorf Hotel, among others. Edinburgh had the Grand Hotel. Newcastle had Tilley’s Room. And Blackpool had the elegant Tower Ballroom.
The British elite were enthralled with this newly-revived entertainment and, in particular, the outrageous dance, which originated in Spain, called the “tango”. Although the waltz, quick-step, and fox trot were very popular, it was the daring tango which became de rigueur at what was then becoming known in the dance clubs as ‘Tango Teas’ or ‘Thé Tangos’. What could be more fun on a typical dreary English afternoon than to drop in to a lively dance club with your friends for a warming pot of tea and a steamy tango? This exotic and risque dance took the country by storm as everyone tried to master the intricacies of the steps.
The Daily Express reported “tango teas becoming so great a craze that one wonders if Mrs. Brown of Brixton 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 of two.”
World War I and the advent of the ‘cocktail hour’ saw the end of the nation’s obsession with tea dances. But it hasn’t gone away completely. It is still alive … in Blackpool … at the Tower Ballroom. Yes, Blackpool, where tea dances are still part of the Tower Ballroom tradition. Everyday the Ballroom hosts tea dances (as well as special events) while serving you an elegantly presented afternoon tea. You may visit any day and participate in this classic tradition. Just remember to put on your dancing shoes and dress appropriately. You won’t regret it!
Take a look . . . Blackpool’s Tea Dances
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References: A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew, The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith, the Blackpool Tower, WikiTravel U.K., Victorian Parlors by Patricia Mitchell