A Daily Telegraph interview with Miriam Margoyles is posted on the Shaftesbury Tea Dance Facebook page. The headline reads ‘Old People Are Despised, Overlooked and Forgotten’. Tony Hawkins’ Saturday socials aim to ensure that’s not the case in Shaftesbury. Alfred’s Keri Jones went along on Saturday.
The Children’s Society bunting was stretched across the downstairs space in the Town Hall. The tables, decorated with white tablecloths, were pulled back to form a dance floor which Tony Hawkins briefly had all to himself. He bobbed around to a1950s rockabilly number whilst the friends and couples who had come to dance enjoyed a short sit down, cake and a cuppa.
“I was made to dance. When I hear music, I just can’t help myself,” said Tony, when he returned from his solo dance. This 94-year old Shaftesbury resident displays energy levels that would put people half his age to shame.
In July, Tony made the headlines as the world’s oldest Fringe performer. He arranged and starred in his own Shaftesbury Fringe show. Now he’s planning to book a well-known musician for a charity gig next year. More will be revealed soon. In the meantime, Tony fits saxophone and singing lessons around his tea dance planning.
He relies on his right-hand woman, local singer Vicky Louth, for admin and social media support and anything else Tony needs her help with. On Saturday, Vicky found herself acting as tea dance MC and DJ.
“It’s been learned on the job,” Vicky explained. “I am trying to get the right tracks to keep everybody dancing. I am very aware of when people are sitting down. We have lots of local dancers and classes where they dance a particular way. A lot of people like sequence dancing and they need a particular type of music to count themselves in. It’s been a big learning curve for me.”
Vicky’s efforts were well received although she was aware that some of the attendees were dance experts. We have got some experienced dancers,” she said.
“One, today, was a professional ballet dancer,” Tony interjected. “She knows Rudolf Nijinsky,” he said, with a wink that indicated he was impressed.
Vicky has learned which genres of tea dance music are floor fillers. “Tony and his peers like the waltzes and foxtrot. This afternoon there were some ladies who I know are recent widows and they were enjoying the jives and the Gay Gordons, which hasn’t come up for a while. At one of our tea dances recently we were doing quite a lot of traditional Scottish dancing, which was a surprise.”
Some of the dancers were younger than I had expected. “We have been four times,” explained Hayley Masterton, who had come along with her East Stour neighbour Sheila Squire. Hayley told me that she’s 53, so some of the music and the dance is unfamiliar to her. “We don’t know what we are doing but we give it a go,” she laughed. “I just like anything vintage.”
Hayley believes taking part is more important than technical accuracy. This isn’t ‘Strictly’. “You can get up and just jig. It is a good social event,” Hayley said. “For £5, you get an afternoon event lasting a couple of hours and tea and cake. What more could you want? It’s lovely.”
Hayley told me how some of her fellow dancers value these events. “There’s an elderly gentleman who comes with his daughter. He’s got dementia and he can remember every single step. I think it’s so important to keep interactive. It’s a good social event for all ages,” she said. She had brought two older relatives who seemed to be having a whale of a time, jiving and twisting the afternoon away.
Hayley’s friend Sheila says she enjoys the simplicity of the sessions and considers them to be two hours of escapism. “I think that, with Brexit and everything, it’s quite a nice release to go back in time to an easier time when things were simpler,” Sheila said.
The tea dance is fun, but it has a serious role as a fundraiser for a good cause which is close to Tony’s heart. “If we were looking for a charity, why look further than the Children’s Society. It does so much good for abandoned and abused children,” said Tony.
The support is mutual. Members of the charity’s Shaftesbury branch help with setting out and then packing away the tables and seating, and serving teas and cake. Local Chairman Chris Jones says that the national organisation dates back to 1881. “The founder discovered some children who would normally attend his Sunday classes in church. They were begging at the roadside. He decided to do something about it. Instead of having homes, the society specialises in finding children who run away and by using trained negotiators they get them back into the family, rather than taken into care,” explained Chris.
Although the tea dance is relatively new and there is room for more dancers, some cash has already been raised for the cause. “It’s got to catch on, of course. We have already had some money out of it, but it has a lot of potential and we hope it will develop,” said Chris.
The fundraising is important because the charity’s workload is increasing nationally. “This year, there has been a 4% increase in the number of children taken into care. It runs into tens of thousands,” Chris said, adding, “It’s very depressing. The Children’s Society does a huge amount to help because the government can’t handle the volume.”
He explained that the organisation aims to safeguard and assist vulnerable children including youngsters who have come to Britain from abroad and who are unaccompanied. “They also specialise in offering respite for the children who care for their parents. There’s a wide range of specialities developed over many years and it is a very vibrant society, which is doing good work.”
The next Tony Hawkins Tea Dance will be on Saturday 1st February at 3.30 pm at Shaftesbury Town Hall. “We are trying to do them in the autumn, winter and spring. We just don’t get the support in the summer months because everybody is outside enjoying the hours of daylight,” explained Vicky.
Tony hopes that the next event will bring additional dancers and Hayley told me that there’s not an equal gender split. There are far many more women than men on the floor. “We’ll have a dance with you next time,” she laughed.