The wicked waltz

In her 1771 novel Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche, writing no doubt for an audience of genteel ladies, portrayed the waltz as a “shameless, indecent whirling-dance [which] broke all the bounds of good breeding”. The early version of the German waltz which she was describing was a variant of the Ländler, a peasant dance dating from the 16th century. The Ländler was notorious for its closed position where men and women embraced each other round the waist and shoulders, and for its rapid turns which made dancers dizzy, breathless and (allegedly) open to all sorts of lustful abominations.

Notwithstanding such criticism, by the end of the 18th century, waltzing was all the rage in polite society in Germany and Austria. In England it was received with suspicion by the self-proclaimed arbiters of morality, as were most foreign innovations at the time. Until the introduction of the waltz, the most popular dances were the country square dances which involved very limited contact between the sexes. Therefore, one of the most criticised aspects of the waltz was its couples-only nature, with men and women dancing in a closed position. The Oxford English Dictionary called the dance riotous and indecent, and it was frequently satirised by caricaturists. Even Lord Byron condemned the waltz, though less for its alleged indecency than its antisocial nature, saying that it was “like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin”.

Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)
Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)

When the waltz appeared at the Prince Regent’s grand ball in 1816, the Times of London wrote:

“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 compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far 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 our duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”

It’s hard to tell how “voluptuous” the “intertwining of the limbs” really was. It could well be that, influenced by wine and a heated, packed ballroom, the dancers did hold each other very close in an immodest fashion. Yet the most popular instruction manuals of the day suggest that the Regency era waltz was a relatively decorous dance which does not fit the Times of London‘s description. In the illustrated frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s 1816 Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (see below), the men and women are dancing at arm’s length in quite a dignified manner.

Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance
Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance

Perhaps the waltz was not always as raucous and indecent as its critics maintained. At any rate, it was given one seal of respectability when the patronesses of Almack’s gave married women and those debutantes “whose deportment was impeccable” the permission to waltz in 1814. This was no unimportant decree; Almack’s was the most respectable and socially exclusive dancing assembly in Regency England. Primarily designed for debutantes, one of its main functions was as a marriage mart; the young women were expected to be on their best behaviour. The fact that waltzing was gradually allowed indicates a slow acceptance of the dance among the higher classes, at least.

Over the course of the 19th century, though, it seems that the waltz became less decorous. Paintings from the late Victorian era portray a very fast and energetic dance sure to leave dancers breathless. There were evidently plenty of opportunities for amorous expression, with some couples shown in a very close embrace. This was partly due to greater acceptance of the dance, and partly due to to a change in the dance itself. Around 1830, the Austrian composers Lanner and Strauss composed a series of waltzes which set the tradition for the later ‘Viennese Waltz’. These were very fast, played at 165-180 beats a minute; certainly a contrast to the early waltz, which was generally danced at an andante con moto: a sedate walking pace. The fast waltz did not replace the slower, but it became wildly popular among younger dancers who wanted to show off their athletic prowess. Since then, the waltz has of course become the best-known and most respectable ballroom dance around; a far cry from its initial reception in polite society.

Anders Zorn, Valsen. 1891
Anders Zorn, Valsen (1891)
Dance at Bougival, Renoir, 1882-3
Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1882-83)

Dancing the lewd La Volta

Dancing, wrote Philip Stubbes in 1583, is altogether a “horrible vice”. In his infamous work The Anatomie of Abuses, Stubbes protested, “what clipping, what culling, what kissing and bussing, what smouching and slabbering of one another: what filthy groping and unclean handling is not practised everywhere in these dancings”. For dancing “provoketh lust, and the fires of lust, [which] once conceived…burst forth into the open action of whoredom and fornication”.

An Elizabethan country dance probably was a good excuse to take certain liberties with the opposite sex. However, I imagine that very near the top of Stubbe’s mental list of dances to be banned was the la volta. Also known as the volta or lavolta, this dance, which is believed to have originated in either Italy or the medieval Provençal courts, was introduced in Paris in around 1556 by Catherine de Medici. Like all French fashions, it made its way across the English Channel soon enough, quickly becoming a hit with the Elizabethan court.

What made the la volta different from most court dances was its bawdy nature. Contemporary critics (often strict Puritans like Stubbes) raged at its alleged indecency. The la volta required highly intimate contact between two partners of the opposite sex. It eschewed most of the stately parading which characterised the pavane and similar fashionable dances, instead consisting of an intricate series of quick steps and leaps. A guide to the dance advised that “if you wish to dance the la volta…you must place your right hand on the damsel’s back, and the left below her bust, and, by pushing her with your right thigh beneath her buttocks, turn her”.

A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along
A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along

Small wonder, then, that the lavolta was swiftly condemned throughout Europe among certain circles. In his 1592 work, Ein Gottseliger Tractat von dem ungottseligen Tantz (‘A Godly Treatise on the Ungodly Dance’), Johann von Münster fumed that even kings were promoting the wicked dance:

“In this dance the dancer with a leap takes the young lady – who also comes to him with a high jump to the measures of the music – and grasps her in an unseemly place…With horror I have often seen this dance at the Royal Court of King Henry III in the year 1582, and together with other honest persons have frequently been amazed that such a lewd and unchaste dance, in which the King in person was first and foremost, should be officially permitted and publicly practiced.”

A century later, another German, Johannes Praetorius, condemned the la volta in his book on the practices of witchcraft, Blockes-Berges Verrichtung. He wrote:

“A new galliard, the volta [is] a foreign dance in which they seize each other in lewd places and which was brought to France by conjurors from Italy…[It is] a whirling dance full of scandalous, beastly gestures and immodest movements…[The volta] is also responsible for the misfortune that innumerable murders and miscarriages are brought about by it”.

Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school
Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school

One critic of the dance went so far as to call for forcible state intervention, saying that “the volta should really be looked into by a well-ordered police force and most strictly forbidden”. Yet unfortunately for its detractors, the la volta remained in fashion until the second half of the 17th century. According to some historians, the la volta was actually the precursor of the waltz, a dance which would shock Europe in the later 18th century. If they are right, then perhaps the la volta lives on to this day, although its scandalous nature has been so diluted that the waltz seems an innocent and old-fashioned dance. Of which more in my next post…

On a final note: for the most accurate recreations of the la volta we have to turn to modern re-enactment; the first video below is a beautifully executed la volta, performed in the hall of Ightham Mote in Kent. The dance has also featured in period films and television series, with less success. Directors tend to take advantage of the la volta’s highly intimate nature in order to help ramp up sexual tension, but they lose the dance’s lively, spirited character.

The second video below, a clip from the 1998 film Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, recreates an actual event when the queen danced the la volta with her court favourite, Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester). The dance is not very accurate; it leaves out the most indecent parts, for one thing. It is, however, certainly more accurate than the dance in the following extract from The Tudors, which, despite its claims, is not a la volta at all. Rather, it is some dance designed solely as a showpiece for Anne Boleyn in her attempts to seduce the king – which, judging by Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ expression, seem to be proceeding very well.


Further Reading

Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (originally published 1583, this edition 1836)