Come “Waltz” With Me. A History of the Supreme Dance of Romance.
Whether one has ever been in a fancy ballroom as an observer or participant, or tuned in for an episode of Dancing With the Stars, most have at least an idea of how a waltz is performed. Readers of Jane Austen and Regency romance surely have read hints of the waltz as the “scandalous dance” of the era. How accurate this depiction is a matter of debate and one reason for this blog post. Naturally, as with most things that have existed over the long tracks of time, there is a history to the waltz which includes a host of alterations from what the dance was in the past to what it is now.
I find that studying the etymology of a word or phrase is a perfect place to start.
(noun) – A round dance performed to music in triple time, extraordinarily popular as a fashionable dance from the late 18c. to late 19c. The dance itself of Bohemian origin; from the Old High German walzan > “to turn, roll, dance,” dated 1781.
The “turn” portion of the definition is the essence of what sets this ballroom dance apart from the majority of the dance styles that came before. Precursors, such as the allemande and minuet, were dignified and rigid dances performed in two lines. The partners moved back and forth as they circled one another, sometimes going under the arms or a few other maneuvers, but generally in a straightforward manner, with touching exclusive to the hands and switching dance partners common.
The waltz, conversely, was born from the landler (a peasant dance in ¾ time) which involved robust movements, such as lifts into the air and twirls, and required lots of space.
The waltz, created at the country cotillion and contra-dances in Austria and Bavaria, refined the wild landler into a polished, graceful dance, but without losing any of its liveliness. As the waltz grew in popularity amongst the lower classes, it crept into the ballrooms of Vienna, and this is where the controversy over the “Viennese Waltz” began in earnest.
The biggest hurdle was that partners were allowed to touch in a far more intimate way. Labeled a forbidden dance well before the tango earned that title, the waltz was universally panned by Austrian officials and Church leaders. Not surprisingly, as with most things that are declared “forbidden” or deemed scandalous, ever-rebellious youths embraced the invigorating waltz, which meant it subsequently thrived and spread.
Composers ignored the restrictions as well, writing music specifically for the waltz. Vincente Martin’s Una Casa Rara, written in 1776, was the first opera to include a waltz piece. In 1787 Mozart wrote three parts in Don Giovanni for the waltz, bringing it to the operatic stage amid overwhelming controversy. The Austrian music scholar, Max Graf, has written:
“If there exists a form of music that is a direct expression of sensuality, it is the Viennese Waltz. It was the dance of the new Romantic Period after the Napoleonic Wars, and the contemporaries of the first waltzes were highly shocked at the eroticism of this dance in which a lady clung to her partner, closed her eyes as in a happy dream, and glided off as if the world had disappeared. The new waltz melodies overflowed with longing, desire, and tenderness.”
The French, especially in the post-Revolution frenzy, embraced the waltz with enthusiasm. A German traveler to Paris in 1804 stated:
“This love for the waltz and this adoption of the German dance is quite new and has become one of the vulgar fashions since the war, like smoking.”
Between the 1830s to 1840s, Josef Lanner and Johann Strauss Jr. reformed waltz compositions into the sophisticated music it now is. By the time Strauss – “The Waltz King” – introduced his stirringly sentimental composition “The Blue Danube” in 1867, the Waltz had reigned in European ballrooms for over seventy years.
The far more reserved English were less open to the concept of the waltz than the reluctant Germans and Austrians had been. Translation: they were vehemently opposed! The days of Queen Elizabeth dancing the equally intimate and fast-paced Volta were long past and pretended to be forgotten. We, with our modern sensibilities, can snicker at the stuffy English of 200 years ago. Or, we can try to appreciate the outrage by considering the typical English line dances of the time. Whether at a country assembly or Almack’s in London, the acceptable social dances had been adopted from elevated French society and were characterized by a refined and stylized elegance. Dances were subdued, much less energetic, characterized by a stern attitude, and the patterns of movement were slow, complex, reserved, and precise. Most essential of all, English line dances were a group activity performed with the dancers often turning away from each other, an explicit line separating the sexes. Dancing partners were kept at arm’s length, coming together for relatively brief moments. Furthermore, the dancers typically wore gloves to make sure there would be no fleshly contact!
You can hardly imagine a more diametrically opposite style of dance than the waltz. The waltz was danced in a close embrace with a single partner, the two gazing into each other’s eyes, and effectively isolated the couple in their own private sphere of intimate enjoyment.
Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feullide, describes in a letter from Hanover dated November 22, 1799:
“I saw the real German Waltz—for the first time—The man takes his partner completely in his arms, and they whirl round, face to face.”
Similar to the waltz pathway in Austria, the working class English were swifter to embrace the new, freer style of dance. While perhaps generally more reserved than other European cultures, even youthful Englishmen have been known to rebel . . . particularly for entertainment AND the opportunity to flirt in a more intimate way.
Worried parents complained that their daughters appeared in the intimate embrace of a man in public! They feared that the constant whirl of the dance would make young girls giddy and prone to lapses of good judgment. Oh no! Rumors spread of young women “running into the vortex of the waltz with impaired features and fatigued organs” to then fall dead in the arms of their partners. Other claims likened the after effects of a female waltzing to drinking three glasses of champagne!
Compromises were made, such as slowing the dance down and requiring waltzers to straighten their arms so as to create a greater distance between them. The gloved hand of the gentleman was placed gently on the waist of the lady at virtually a full arm’s length. Her gloved hand rested lightly on his shoulder, while his other arm remained open and acted as a shelf for her other hand. Their bodies were covered head-to-toe in layers of clothing and would literally be a foot or more apart! Still, there is no denying the romantic nature of dancing in such close proximity with the exclusion of all others, especially if the couple were in love.
Caricature prints, such as the two above, while essentially factual, exaggerated the scandalous aspects of the waltz. This increased the near hysteria and the reputation of the waltz as a wicked dance which must be stopped! Obviously, the efforts were in vain. All of Europe was immersed in the “Romantic Period” with everything focused upon LOVE. The waltz arrived at the perfect time.
In a letter written by Caroline Lamb in 1824, she recounts her introduction to Lord Byron twelve years earlier, in 1812:
Devonshire House at that time was closed from my uncle’s death for one year – at Melbourne House where I lived the Waltzes and Quadrilles were being daily practised – Lady Jersey, Lady Cowper, the Duke of Devonshire, Miss Milbank, and a number of foreigners coming here to learn…
You may imagine what forty or fifty people dancing from 12 in the morning until near dinner time all young gay & noisy were. In the evenings we either had opposition suppers or went out to Balls and routs – Such was the life I then led when Moore and Rogers introduced Lord Byron to me…
The inclusion of Lady Jersey and Lady Cowper, two of the Patronesses of Almack’s Assembly, is quite revealing. In 1812, the waltz was banned from Almack’s. This changed in 1814 when the Patronesses sanctioned the dance, although with the proviso that a gentleman seeks specific approval before allowed to clasp the waist of a lady. Jane Austen’s Emma, published in 1815, mentions the waltz at a country dance at Highbury:
“Mrs. Weston, capital in her country-dances, was seated, and beginning an irresistible waltz; and Frank Churchill, coming up with most becoming gallantry to Emma, had secured her hand, and led her up to the top.”
While clearly gaining acceptance and even filtering into London Society, dance historians agree that the waltz was officially introduced in July of 1816 upon the occasion of a grand ball in honor of the Prince Regent’s birthday. The inclusion of the waltz was the ultimate stamp of approval. Even so, rumblings continued, such as a blistering editorial in The Times a few days after the Prince’s birthday ball:
“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last … it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”
WOW! Exaggerate much? Despite the negativity, the waltz was here to stay.
In 1816 the first treatise on the waltz was published. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing was written by dance master Thomas Wilson. Wilson strived to tone down the objectionable parts by, for example, describing the dance’s steps using the strict, technical balletic five positions of the feet and warning against all attitudes and movements that were not “graceful and pleasing.” His stated purpose for the book was the intention “of remedying so great an evil” as he saw the erroneous judgment of the waltz.
As seen in the image below from A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, a formal and controlled waltz style was described. Wilson also distinguished between two main types of waltz: French Waltzing, danced high on the toes to slower music; and German Waltzing danced on a flat foot to faster music. In either type, Wilson presented a waltz that was far removed from the wilder waltz as depicted in the two caricatures above.
However the waltz was danced, it was extremely vigorous. The circular rotation meant the dancers were constantly turning both clockwise and counterclockwise, switching steps and directions rapidly as they progressed around all areas of the dance floor. The steps were not nearly as intricate as most country line dances, but the fast pace made the waltz very difficult to master. Best danced by those who were young and healthy, the exhausting waltz could be downright dangerous to those past their prime!
More than any other dance, the waltz represented the abstract values and ideals of the Romantic era: freedom, character, passion, and expressiveness. By the mid-1800s, it was firmly established as the most popular dance in all of Europe. Strangely, the normally staid and proper Queen Victoria was a keen and expert ballroom dancer with a special love of the waltz!
Modifications evolved as the decades passed: the pace slowed in half to solve the problem of “waltz exhaustion” and music written for the waltz decreased the tempo, lending a sweeping, smooth, confidence to the movements. The intimate and tightly clasped embrace became the standard frame. In time, the newer form of waltzing — the Modern Waltz — was established as a unique dance in stark contrast to the historical Viennese Waltz.
Goethe said, “Never have I moved so lightly. I was no longer a human being. To hold the most adorable creature in one’s arms and fly around with her like the wind, so that everything around us fades away…”