“We who go forth of nights and see without the slightest discomposure our sister and our wife seized on by a strange man and subjected to violent embraces and canterings round a small-sized apartment – the only apparent excuse for such treatment being that it is done to the sound of music – can scarcely realize the horror which greeted the introduction of this wicked dance.” – (Fitzgerald, 1867)
Few sights are as romantic as that of a couple, absorbed in each other, sweeping across the floor in a waltz. It is certainly the highlight of many a fairy tale and even Jane Austen allows her couples ample time on the dance floor. But what is the real story behind the waltz and how it was received when it arrived in England in the early 1800s?
Origins of the Waltz
The history of the waltz actually dates back to the 1500′s. There are several references to a sliding or gliding dance, i.e. a waltz, from the 16th century including the representations of the printer H.S. Beheim. Hans Sachs wrote of the dance in his 1568 Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände (1568) and the French philosopher Montaigne wrote of a dance he saw in 1580 in Augsburg, where the dancers held each other so closely that their faces touched (possibly La Volta). Kunz Haas, in about the same period wrote:
“Now they are dancing the godless, Weller or Spinner, whatever they call it.” “The vigorous peasant dancer, following an instinctive knowledge of the weight of fall, utilizes his surplus energy to press all his strength into the proper beat of the measure, thus intensifying his personal enjoyment in dancing.” (Nettl, 1946)
In the late 17th century (1698), at the Austrian Court in Vienna, ladies were conducted around the room to the tune of a 2 beat measure, which then became the 3/4 of the Nach Tanz (After Dance). Upon hearing this, couples got into place for the Weller and waltzed around the room with gliding steps.
The peasants of Bavaria, Tyrol, and Styria began dancing a dance called Walzer, a dance for couples, around 1750. The Ländler, also known as the Schleifer, a country-dance in 3/4 time, was popular in Bohemia, Austria, and Bavaria, and spread from the countryside to the suburbs of the city. While the eighteenth century European upper classes continued to dance the minuet, bored noblemen often slipped away to the balls of their servants to dance the much livelier dances there. (Grove, Fuller-Maitland, & Wodehouse, 1880)
Describing life in Vienna (dated at either 1776 or 1786), Don Curzio wrote,
“The people were dancing mad […] The ladies of Vienna are particularly celebrated for their grace and movements of waltzing of which they never tire.” There is a waltz in the second act finale of the opera “Una Cosa Rara” written by Martin y Solar in 1786. Solar marked his waltz Andante con moto, or “at a walking pace with motion” but the flow of the dance was sped-up in Vienna leading to the Geschwindwalzer, and the Galloppwalzer. (Boyle, 2011)
The Waltz Arrives in England
No exact date for introduction of the German waltz into England can be determined nor is t clear whether it came there from Germany or France. In 1800 the artist and caricaturist James Gilray published a caricature of a couple for a quiz with the note that “this was intended for a quiz upon the foreign dance, waltzing.” Again, in 1810, Gilray published another sketch entitled, “La Walse, Le Bon Genre,” with the note, “The walse is at this time new in England and just coming into fashion.”
Although the dance may not have arrived in England until the early 1800s, the fame, or rather the notoriety of the new dance had reached England some years before. The famed musicologist Dr. Charles Burney, who saw it danced in Paris in 1780, wrote,
“How uneasy the English mother would feel to see her daughter so unfamiliarly treated and still more to note the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.”
In his journal, Thomas Raikes (the younger) declares that, “no event ever produced so great a sensation in English society as the introduction of the German Waltz,” which he attributes to Baron Neumann and others about the year 1811. He goes on to relate how the mornings, “which had hitherto been dedicated to lounging in the park, were now absorbed at home in practicing the figures of a French quadrille or whirling a chair around the room to learn the step and measure of the German waltz.” (Raikes, 1856)
Waltz music arrived in England some time before the dance itself. English Dance Masters quickly wrote dances to fit the music. These used standard figures from traditional English country dance. To the English of the late 1700s and early 1800s, the word waltz primarily indicated that the dance was a turning one. The Duke of Kent’s Waltz, generally dated ca. 1802, is a good example of this style with its use of standard ECD figures such as, two-hands across right and left, chasse down and up, etc. This dance was named in honor of Edward Augustus, the fourth son of George III and the father of the future Queen Victoria. He was made Duke of Kent in 1799 at the age of 32.
While the Duke of Kent’s Waltz is danced as a long-way set, with men and women facing each other, there is the opportunity for men and women to get rather close to each other, more so than in earlier dances. Twice in each verse, men and women step in towards each other with their hands together, before the woman turns under the man’s arm to end up in the other line. You can imagine this truly being a lovers’ dance, with the chance to gaze into your partner’s eyes and get physically closer than allowed in any other polite circumstance.
The German waltz, as danced on the continent, was a different animal. Danced in couples with the man’s arm around his partner’s waist, it was widely condemned in England as immoral, given the “closed” dance position, the rapid tempo, and the constant twirling and turning. In order to appreciate the outrage initially caused by this new dance style, one need only think of the stately, slow, and distant movements of the Minuet, the Allemande, the Contredance, and the other courtly dances of the time. These social dances of French society were characterized by a refined and stylized elegance, polite distance between the dancers, and reserved and precise movements. They were subdued, performed at arm’s length, much less energetic, and characterized by a formality of conduct and slow complex patterns of movement. Dancers wore gloves so there would be no contact of bare flesh even at this distance. You can hardly imagine a more utterly opposite style of dance than those first wildly popular Viennese Waltzes.
Almack’s, the most exclusive club in London, began allowing the German waltz from 1812 on, although the patroness there still kept a firm hand on who was given permission to dance “the godless…Spinner.” No debutante could waltz unless the patroness had given her permission, something that was only granted to girls “whose deportment was considered impeccable.” (Murray, 1998)
Even as the German waltz began to be accepted into English society, there continued to be outrage and resistance. Lord Byron (1788-1824), celebrated in life for aristocratic excesses, including huge debts, many love affairs and rumors of a scandalous incestuous affair with his half-sister, was shocked to enter a London ballroom and see one of his “ladies” clasped close by
“ a huge hussar-looking gentleman, turning round and round to a confounded see-saw, up-and-down sort of turn, like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin.” (Silvestor, 1949)
Finally, consider that even the Royal family was not safe from public criticism when it came to the German waltz as demonstrated in this report on the Prince Regent’s grand ball from the society pages of The Times of London, summer 1816.
“We remarked with pain that the 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 compressor 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 is a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.” (Knowles, 2009)
Interestingly, the “voluptuous intertwining of the limbs,” simply referred to the close dance position of the day. The gloved hand of the gentleman was placed gently on the waist of his partner at almost full arm’s length. The lady’s left-gloved hand quite possibly was delicately placed on her gentleman’s shoulder, and she likely held a fan in that same hand. The left hand of the gentleman remained open and acted as the shelf for his partner’s right-gloved hand. The scandalous point of that reporter’s observation was that the gentleman’s foot disappeared from time to time under the lady’s gown in the midst of the dance. The bodies of the dancers were never in contact!
Whether or not you feel the closed dance position to be indecent, this early Waltz was an exhausting and dizzying experience, consisting of constant twirling without pause or break. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the German writer and statesman 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…” (Swainson, Bill, 2000)
Having danced with a number of colonial-period, regency-period, and English Country Dance groups over the years, I wonder, however, how many of those fine ladies would have risked their reputations to dance the waltz back when waltzing was both new and scandalous? I suspect that today, in a time where reputation is not as important as it once was, many of them would. Nevertheless, isn’t it kind of fun to try to put yourself in the mindset of Regency England and ask yourself,
“Am I prepared to risk my reputation and future prospects for a few moments of pleasure?”
How about sharing your thoughts in the comments below?
Altamont Enterprise. (1905, July 7). Birth of the Waltz. Altamont Enterprise (newspaper), p. 2.
Boyle, L. (2011, June 20). History of the Waltz. Retrieved from Jane Austen.co.uk: http://www.janeausten.co.uk/the-history-of-the-waltz/
Fitzgerald, P. (1867, February). On Balls. Belgravia – A London Magazine, pp. 225-235.
Grove, S. G., Fuller-Maitland, J. A., & Wodehouse, A. H. (1880). A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1450-1880). London: Macmillan and Co.
Knowles, M. (2009, Summer). The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.
Murray, V. (1998). An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. New York: Penguin.
Nettl, P. (1946). Birth of the Waltz. Dance Index, vol. 5, nr. 9, p. 211.
Raikes, T. (1856). A Portion of the Journal Kept by Thomas Raikes, Esq. From 1831 to 1847 Vol II. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts.
Silvestor, V. (1949). Old Time Dancing. London: Herbert Jenkins, Ltd.
Stephenson, R. M. (1992). The Complete Book of Ballroom Dancing. New York: Broadway Books.
Swainson, Bill. (2000). Encarta Book of Quotations. New York: St. Martin’s Press.