Strictly tea dancing – waltzing in the afternoon

The Gaiety Bar tea dance on South Parade Pier
The Gaiety Bar tea dance on South Parade Pier

As the strains of a Fred Astaire number resonate around the room, elegantly dressed couples gracefully waltz across the dance floor. 

There’s the gentle clinking of china as those without a partner, or those who just need a rest,  sip tea and chat as the nostalgic ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s music plays.  

Gladys Turner, 82, who attends six tea dances a week

Gladys Turner, 82, who attends six tea dances a week

The atmosphere is warm and the guests have made an effort to look their best with the men in shirts and ties and the women  in long, sweeping dresses and shimmering jewellery, hair coiffed to perfection. 

It is the fortnightly tea dance in the ballroom of the recently renovated Gaiety Bar on South Parade Pier, Southsea.

For at least 30 years the venue has played host to one of Portsmouth’s most popular tea dances. 

It’s one of many charming afternoon dances  held in community halls and ballrooms across Hampshire each week. 

Members of the Waterlooville Community Centre tea dance celebrate its 25th anniversary

Members of the Waterlooville Community Centre tea dance celebrate its 25th anniversary

For a while, the South Parade Pier tea dance was held at the nearby Royal Beach Hotel. The pier had fallen into disrepair but the dance’s organisers were adamant the show would go on. 

Now they’re back and the much-loved dance – hosted by DJ Steve Kingsley once a fortnight, on a Wednesday afternoon from 1pm until 4pm – is back at its birthplace. 

To those unacquainted, the fixture is exactly what its name suggests – boasting a seemingly endless supply of tea, a spacious dance floor, three hours of smooth and soulful toe-tappers and  a raffle. 

Riding the wave of a lifetime of change,   one stalwart its organisers cannot keep away is Gladys Turner. 

Members of the Waterlooville Community Centre tea dance enjoying  a waltz

Members of the Waterlooville Community Centre tea dance enjoying a waltz

The 82-year-old from Waterlooville has been a familiar face at the fixture for more than 20 years. 

‘I live for dancing – I absolutely adore it,’ she says. ‘My husband Les died 22 years ago, then I met another partner to dance with, but he died five years ago. But although I miss Les very much, everybody here is so friendly.

‘You meet many different people and I’m more than happy to dance with men or women.’ 

Southsea is not Gladys’s  only stomping ground.  

She religiously attends tea dances six days a  week, with others taking her to community centres in Waterlooville and Bedhampton, as well as the Sinah Warren Hotel on Hayling Island. 

However, there’s one constant across all those venues a lack of male participants. 

A dancer at South Parade Pier for the past month,  Raymond Stray is helping to buck the trend. The 82-year-old from Portsmouth partners on the floor with Stamshaw pal Eileen Howton, 74, but doesn’t discriminate when requests come knocking. 

‘We’ve actually only just taken up dancing lessons – we wanted to do something different,’ he says. 

‘Having been here for a little while now I simply cannot fault this environment. 

‘Everybody is so kind and what’s so good is it gets you out of the house.’ 

Tea dances, including the Gaiety Bar’s , are patronised by the more mature members of society who step back in time to the strains of music popular when they were younger. 

And there are fears tea dances may not continue for much longer.  

‘It is very sad to think about, ’  says Ray, ‘but I think tea dances are a tradition which will phase out one day. 

‘What is nice though, is when youngsters do watch, it’s obvious they fancy having a go – even if they are too bashful in the end. 

‘To them and anyone else I would say, “don’t think about it, just do it”.

‘It would be a tragedy to see a pastime like this disappear.’ 

And tea dancer Iris Pettet, from Southsea, agrees. 

‘I used to come here with my husband right at the beginning, when it first started,’ says the 90-year-old from Southsea . 

‘In those days there were many dance halls, whereas now there are  not so many – it’s a shame.’ 

Like South Parade Pier though, which this week alone drew a 100-strong crowd for its fortnightly outing, there are a cluster of venues keen to keep the tea dancing torch ablaze. 

Just last month, more than 70 dancers  at Waterlooville Community Centre celebrated 25 years since they started hot-stepping it across the dance  floor.  

‘It was a wonderful celebration enjoyed by all,’ says club treasurer and organiser Phyllis Wallfield. 

‘What was rather poignant was the reception we got to a display of pictures we put up from the dances over the years. 

‘Sadly a lot of the people in them have passed on now, but throughout the afternoon I would hear people say “Oh, that’s so and so...”

‘It was lovely to be reminded of those who started the dance and those who have carried it on to date.’ 

In contrast to some of her peers, Phyllis remains optimistic the baton of tea dancing will be picked up by the younger generations – thanks to the buzz which year  in year  out surrounds the television hit Strictly Come Dancing

‘I don’t think they will disappear. We have had younger people recently start coming along,’ she says.  

But on a personal level, she says there is a lot she owes to the pastime, which has guided her through tough times of her own. 

‘I’ve been involved with this group for about 15 years, but I lost my husband Stan 13 years ago – and tea dancing has been my life-saver,' says the 83-year-old. 

‘When he knew he wasn’t going to make it, he wanted to be sure I would carry on dancing.  

‘Since then, the friends I’ve made have been a great support to me, a great encouragement​​​ – and they keep me going.’

Tea dances near you:

The Gaiety Bar, South Parade Pier, Southsea, PO4 0SW. Next meeting from 1-4pm on Wednesday, September 19 – then every fortnight at the same time. Tickets £6 including tea or coffee, or £10, including cream tea. Book on (023) 9229 4094. 

Waterlooville Community Centre, 10 Maurepas Way, PO7 7AY.  Mondays, 2-4pm £3, including tea and biscuits. Call (023) 9248 4209 for info. 

Bedhampton Social Hall, 21 Bedhampton Road PO9 3ES. Sequence dance social on Wednesdays from 8-10pm. Tickets £3. 

General dance every first Thursday of the month, from 2-4pm. Tickets £2.50. Call (023) 9248 4209 for info. 

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