Step-by-step: tea dance

An afternoon tea dance sounds inviting, but how do you take the first steps? Nikki Burch leads the way

Whether you want to recognise grandparents as a valued part of your school community or celebrate a special anniversary, an afternoon tea dance makes a wonderful event. Many organisations will be eager to support an activity that bridges the generations, so this is a good way to cut your teeth if you're new to asking for donations of time, goods or services.

Key ingredients

Venue: You'll need a room that will allow enough space for dancing, as well as seating for guests and access to a kitchen for preparing food. Know what your capacity is and ask guests to reserve a place to help manage numbers.

Atmosphere: If using your school hall (where strip lighting is the order of the day!), consider what can be done to create a warm, cosy ambiance. See 'The icing on the cake', right.

Entertainment: Who will run the dancing? Leverage existing contacts where possible or research organisations that run ballroom-dancing classes nearby. You are giving them a great opportunity to promote their classes to a new audience, and perhaps they can invite their regular attendees along too.

Food and refreshments: Decide what you will offer and who can provide this. Can your school canteen staff order and prepare everything? Or would a local supermarket be willing to donate bread and fillings, with volunteers making sandwiches before the doors open?

Volunteers (children and adults): This is a fabulous volunteering opportunity for students, so put out an appeal for helpers and give a cut-off date for applications.

Equipment needed

  • Tables and chairs
  • Mugs, plates and bowls
  • Cups/glasses for soft drinks
  • Tablecloths and napkins
  • Sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and crisps
  • Tea, coffee, milk, sugar and soft drinks
  • Lighting and music/compere (and PA system)
  • Cake stands, vases and flowers
  • Clothing rail and hangers
  • Name stickers for students
  • Cards and pens for taking drinks orders
  • Signage (for toilets, if required)
  • Menu cards for each table, featuring allergen information (optional)
  • Donation envelopes and feedback forms (optional)

Your first challenge is to schedule a suitable date and time around existing school events, PTA events, lettings and other commitments! Consider the needs of your target audience – in winter it's dark by 4pm, so will they want to travel home after that time?

Once you know the capacity of your venue, move on to refreshments. Source potential donors or, if your school kitchen can provide refreshments, seek sponsorship to cover the costs. Work to a budget of £1.50 to £2 per head.

Decide whether you will charge for tickets or run a free event, perhaps inviting donations on the day. If selling tickets, consider how you will collect payment – especially from those with no existing connection to the school.

Marketing is vital – do you have a database of grandparents you can contact and how can you reach a wider audience? An email to parents asking them to share details with grandparents might yield some uptake, but older generations may be more likely to respond to a physical flyer. Contact your town council, GP surgeries, churches, retirement homes and local branches of organisations such as Age UK or Carers Support.

Include contact details in all marketing collateral and invite guests to book a place in advance via email or phone. This will help you manage numbers, both for venue capacity and catering purposes.

Discuss the format with the people running the entertainment. As a gauge, 40 minutes of dancing, a 40-minute break for refreshments, followed by another 40 minutes of dancing, works well. Many guests will arrive early and want time to settle, so aim to be ready 15 minutes before the event officially starts.

Make a note of students with special requirements, for example you may want to keep those with nut allergies away from food preparation, and avoid having products that obviously contain nuts (such as coffee and walnut cake). Know how many students you need (say two serving per table, plus a few on the door welcoming guests and others helping to prepare food). Draw up a list of jobs that need doing on the day for both adult volunteers and students – from laying tables to taking drink orders.

Rising to the occasion

  • Welcome guests at the door and ask them to sign in.
  • Once everyone's seated, run through the format of the event and point out emergency exits and toilets.
  • Explain that each table will have its own waiting staff.
  • Introduce the dance company and hand over to them to start the dancing.
  • At the end of the interval, mention any fundraising the school is undertaking and let guests know how they can support this.
  • Half-way through the second half, get students to hand out feedback forms and pens.
  • At the end, thank everyone for coming, thank the dance company and any sponsors, and let guests know about any upcoming events or how they might keep in touch (website listings, Facebook group and so on).

The icing on the cake

Anticipating and meeting guests' needs will build engagement and encourage support for future events. Will you offer gluten-free and vegan options? Is your venue within easy access of a disabled toilet?

Tablecloths, cut flowers and low-level lighting can transform a school hall and disguise utilitarian canteen tables. Contact local hotels for tablecloths and cake stands, and ask electrical suppliers about donations of festoon lighting or portable downlighters.

Think laterally and capitalise on the opportunities you have created. Seek feedback from students (using
a quick Google quiz or Survey Monkey) about whether they enjoyed the experience and are likely to volunteer for future events. Send a press release to local publications. Share the success of your event on social media and in an email to parents. Follow up with guests by emailing out a summary of feedback. Thank them for attending and let them know about other opportunities for them to engage with the school, for example careers talks, reading with students or running after-school clubs. Nurturing relationships with those who have more available time and disposable income than parents might yield unexpected benefits!

The finished product

'The aim of our tea dance was to engage with grandparents and older people in the wider community. Tickets were free and we ran the dance from 4-6pm on a Wednesday afternoon. Local businesses and organisations embraced the idea of bringing young and old together, and couldn't have been more generous. The entertainment was led by instructors from local dance company A&J Dancing, who brought along 24 of their existing customers, so we were guaranteed a packed dance floor.

Through Mid Sussex District Council's 'Silver Sundays' fund, we secured £216 towards catering and to purchase masonry hooks and wires for atmospheric festoon lighting. Retirement Villages UK gave us £250 towards food, and also sent a professional photographer. Our local Waitrose provided cakes, biscuits and refreshments.

The finishing touches make all the difference. The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Felbridge lent tablecloths and cake stands, and our KS3 secretary created beautiful fresh flower arrangements in decorated jam jars. Each table had menu cards with allergen information and A4 envelopes inviting voluntary donations to our School Fund (this raised an incredible £187).

We promoted the event in emails to parents, flyers at parents' evenings and through social media. Our school is a member of the East Grinstead Dementia Action Alliance, and I gave flyers to fellow members, including Age UK, Carers Support, churches and GP surgeries. Guests booked via email and we had a fantastic turnout of around 50 people. Among the guests were a former student who started at the school in 1939, and two who were here in the 1960s and 1970s!

A group of Year 9 students came along to help – we assigned a pair of students to each table, giving them name stickers, cards and a pen for taking orders. The atmosphere was incredible and the students, while nervous at first, soon fell into the swing of taking drinks orders and waiting on tables. They even took to the dance floor for a quick "lesson", alongside staff and guests.

The feedback we received was hugely complimentary: "Everything was perfect", and "The students were charming and interested and a credit to the school". The event provided a fabulous volunteering opportunity for students, and it was hugely rewarding to bring young and old together for an activity that spans the generations. Keep dancing!'

Nikki Burch, former fundraising and partnerships manager at Imberhorne School, East Grinstead, West Sussex (1,650 pupils)


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