The Tea Dance

Mary Gibson invited me specially to drop in this afternoon to chat with the regulars at Wednesday afternoon’s Tea Dance Society in Allendale Village Hall. So I’ll certainly have more stories and information about this beloved institution in Allendale, later in the day, but for now some anecdotes will suffice, I’m sure.

I really don’t know how long the Tea Dance has been going, but it seems like it must be forever, or at least ever since the hall was built! That would be going back a century and a decade plus to 1906! Maybe not quite that long, then. Margaret Stonehouse writes in to tell me that actually, Zane Foster and Fawside set up the Tea Dance Society in the early ’90s, as a social strategy to encourage activity and better health for the community’s beloved seniors. In my experience over the past decades, I’ve always found that the participants are lovely, if stoical, enjoying gentle movement and tea with cakes, and the crucial raffle draw, on a sociable afternoon.

Really, the first time I came in contact with the Tea Dance group was when we were trying to elicit EU grant money from the North Pennines LEADER2 fund, to renovate the floor in the main hall. The ageing patches were getting too dangerous, and I also had my dispassionate eye on the desperately placed heating vents strategically placed at shin height that took away perhaps 1/10th of the available floor space from the hall. I asked the Tea Dance for a letter of support, to go with the grant application, for a renewed floor and heating vent relief, and a fulsome letter appeared by return. We did get the grant, back in 2003 I believe, and although it took rather a lot of patience before the new floor bedded in properly, and the summer of installation was definitely a dusty one, it all eventually came together. I remember Angus Tait so well, houking out the walls to accommodate the heating ducts and vents, before the new oak flooring was installed.

The new floor was not without its problems, however, with a unique layer of dust aggregating over it in a circular trail, after every dance. The mothers of the Scouts who came in every Wednesday evening were not amused, I recall, because their children’s trousers came home caked in it. We were tearing our hair out, on the management front, trying to figure out where this dust was coming from! The Tea Dance swore blind (well, they certainly didn’t swear, they averred faithfully!) that they did not use floor wax on their shoes to smooth the glide. It was only when I got Mr Stenhouse himself, of Stenhouse Flooring who had installed the new oak floor, in to consider the situation, that we figured out the problem. The floor, freshly washed, had never been buffed, and so was left with a very thin, dry calcium scum which was inevitably scuffed up by the dancer’s shoes! Buffing of the freshly washed floor was promptly instituted thereafter, and the problem was solved! It’s probably soon time for a complete surface sanding and re-coating of that floor, which has withstood rather a vigorous onslaught over the years since its installation.

But the Tea Dance had become renowned, at least to me, for their seemingly inexhaustible stores of patience. Every time the big diesel boiler fired up, at the beginning of a dance session, the most choking fumes used to emanate throughout the hall. It was always at start-up, and the Tea Dance never complained, but during a routine check at some point, the heating engineers discovered a major deterioration in the primary flue, down in the basement, such that the first burst of flame was pumping diesel fumes straight up into the hall itself! That flue issue was swiftly fixed too, but it was only a matter of another couple of years before the 30 year old boiler was condemned: the boiler was being eaten away from the inside, and flames that one really shouldn’t be able to see were increasingly visible through the thinning boiler walls.

Another crisis, resolved fortuitously when the North Pennines AONB-Landscape Partnership took up purpose-remodeled offices in the Old Kitchen, funding a new kerosene boiler with blower in toto by a four-year advance rent. The Tea Dance graciously accommodated to the change, working as smoothly out of the New Kitchen as from the old!

One year, and I know I’ve written about this somewhere, but I cannot find it . . . one year just before the Charity Auction, Nigel Baynes and I dropped in to chat with the Tea Dance folks on our forays around the houses for auction collectibles. We didn’t want to disturb them before their session was over, as I recall, but somehow we were inveigled to sit down for a moment, to have a cup of tea and some delicious cake, and to participate in the raffle. Well, we did, and I think Nigel won a lovely prize. We couldn’t be persuaded to dance, however. But I remember that moment with some fondness. Another fond moment remembered by the Tea Dance members would be the time that the BBC came to film their twirls, and Matt Baker, long before he was ‘Strictlyfied’ took Margaret Stonehouse onto the dance floor! Apparently his ballroom dancing technique was (ahherrm!) vastly improved by his ‘Strictly’ experience.

It was a couple of years after that, I think, that we discovered that both the hall, and the Tea Dance, were paying the PRS/PPL music licence quango for the same privilege of playing recorded music for dancing! We managed, by defining the Tea Dance as an intrinsic group within the hall rubric, to avoid this duplication, and well we might. The group is an institution, intimately associated with the hall, after all!

Later today then, I’ll post some more particulars on the diary website about the Tea Dance, after chatting with some regulars, maybe catching a photo or two. It’s been fun reminiscing about these things, but for further information about the current state of the Tea Dance, do watch this space!


Mary did welcome me into the warm and cosy hall, and we chatted a bit about growing older gracefully, as dancers from Nenthead, Alston, Gilsland and Hexhamshire made their way to their seats. Sometimes, Mary said, a little group from Allendale head off to the Haydonian in Haydon Bridge of a Monday evening, though the floor is quite cramped. But it’s nice to share the dancing bug with neighbours around the patch. Peggy Nattrass cheerfully volunteered her age (97!) as the oldest dancer in the group. Tom Fletcher came over to chat about the sound (the group have reverted to their original sound system). Apparently the Tea Dance benefits from the services of 3 DJs, all of them in their 80s!

Change is getting harder to accommodate for the Tea Dance, Mary remarked, as there’s new people to get to know, so she was delighted to hear about the proposed ‘Welcome Pack’ that will try to introduce newcomers to the many opportunities in the voluntary sector here in these valleys. Mary encouraged everyone to get up and have a twirl, so I could take some photographs, and I tried to count: step, step, slide; twirl and do-si-do; promenade. Soft and sweet and gentle. There’s usually between a dozen and twenty dancers in any week, though numbers have been dwindling; the dance was cancelled last week because of a funeral. As Mary noted, there’s a generational disparity now, as the offspring of today’s tea dancers don’t really dance themselves. But for as long as there are dancers, I hope they’ll all kee-eep dancing!

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