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)

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