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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

The Waltz: A Georgian Era Scandal, i.e. A Loving Embrace on the Dancefloor

Publication Date: July 4, 2024


To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.

Painting by Cruickshank of couples dancing the waltz in the Georgian era
Argyle Rooms by Isaac Cruikshank, 1825, British Library

Let us establish one point right away, and then we can dive into the timeline and details. The waltz we know now where the couple face each other, hand on shoulder/waist, and revolve in slow and romantic time is not, emphatically not, the waltz our Georgian era heroes and heroines would have danced. This version is a 20th century waltz. The version our Georgian era heroes and heroines knew was a fast-paced dance with spinning and twirling, and the only parts that would have been touching would have been fingertips. What made the waltz controversial was that partners didn't dance with a group or separate during the course of the dance, as they would have done with all other dances.


To start us off with the right frame of mind, this video (also embedded below this paragraph) from a recreation ball highlights three of the most popular dances of the 18th century. It's a short video, and I think it's a great place to start our journey since it shows the style of dancing of the time, what our heroes and heroines would have been accustomed to. The contradanse (the 2nd dance in the video) is especially fun to watch and sets the scene nicely to fully appreciate just why staying with one partner only during a dance was to become so controversial.




 

Origins

 

The waltzing style and appearance in ballrooms is separated into three eras:

“The Early Period” 1790-1810

“The Controversy” 1810-1812

“The Acceptance” 1813-1819


It's important to know as we head into this that the waltz--while still being a fast-paced, spinning dance, nothing slow and romantic or with bodies touching--was danced differently in each country. This is important because only one country had a waltz so controversial it wasn't allowed in any ballroom in England, which, incidentally, would become the foundation for the waltz we now know, but only after a few decades' worth of figure changes.


When we think of “waltz” we must think of it in terms of both dance and music, for without the music, there wouldn’t be the dance. It’s in 3/4 time, accent on the first beat, although it was first seen in 3/8 time, changing to 3/4 later.

 

The music originated in Austria from simple peasant yodeling melodies, referenced as early as the 16th century. We see the waltz music itself popular in ballrooms for at least two centuries before a waltz dance was designed to accompany it. Waltz music was among the liveliest of pieces in the ballroom, much loved, and nearly every composer tried their hand at one or more waltzes with some composers choosing to write exclusively only waltzes as we move further into the 19th century.


You might be surprised that the waltz has a much longer history than it would seem by its sudden arrival in England during the Regency era. As waltz music gained traction in other countries, so did a unique turning style of dancing, becoming especially popular amongst the peasants in Vienna in the 17th century. Yup, you read that correctly: the music is 16th century, and the dance is 17th century! The dance was called the Weller or Spinner rather than the Waltz. It was not until the end of the 17th century (1698) that Austrian high society took to the dance. It was so simple in dance steps, dance masters protested, refusing to teach their pupils something anyone could dance, with or without skill. Any connoisseur of dance would prefer the complex figures as a sign of deportment, grace, and even intelligence.

 

An illustration by Guillaume of a couple dancing the allemande in 1769
Allemande by Simon Guillaume, 1769, Paris

This dance made its way to Europe during the 18th century, but only among commoners, danced specifically at village assemblies, never in high society. Since it was not popular with high society in Europe, it didn't make it to England until the 19th century--and thus it so often seems to have a short history... but the short history is only in England! High society, throughout the 18th century, preferred courtly dances, such as the minuet, and then as we move into the 19th century, the preference was for country dances. The Allemande (video also embedded below this paragraph) was the closest to a waltz we would see in England until the Regency era. The video is only one minute and change, but you'll see some similarities to the waltz as we look at the waltz's evolution and styles to come.






Dance Styles


Before the waltz involved close holds of partners, it was the rapid turning that led to moral criticism. Neither the music nor the dance was what we know it to be today (I'll repeat that about 10 more times, I'm sure, to carve the point into stone.). The music was fast and lively. The dance itself was not intimate with touching, its only scandalous aspect being that one stayed with one’s partner rather than separating as with a line dance. The waltz as we know it as an Americanized version from the late 19th and early 20th century, but we would see similar versions creeping in by the Regency thanks to the German version. In this section, we'll trace the evolution by style.


Our modern vision of the waltz is often depicted in film, but of course, this was not the version those in the Georgian era of England would have known. You might recognize these familiar depictions from Cinderella (animated waltz here) and Beauty and the Beast (animated waltz here). Don't let these fool you, though, as these are 20th century waltzes. The Georgian waltz our heroes and heroines would have known would have been danced similarly to the Allemande, finger-tips or elbows held with a great deal of spinning and turning. Interestingly, the live action version of Cinderella features a fascinating waltz to watch as it combines two centuries' worth of waltzes into one, opening with what our Regency heroes and heroines would have been more familiar with, then turning into the 20th century waltz. Check it out. Holly Collins of Adventures in Dance has a really interesting article about the dance as depicted in the live action film.


We've hammered home what was not in the Georgian era. So, what did they dance when it came to the waltz? Continue on to find out!


Duke of Kent's Waltz

What did the waltz look like when it arrived in England, the waltz our heroes and heroines would have been more familiar with? The steps and figures England used were devised by the Duke of Kent, involving two-hands across right and left, chasse down and up, etc. It was a long-way set, partners facing each other. Twice in each verse, partners would step towards each other and clasp hands for the woman to turn under the man’s arm. Behold, the Duke of Kent's waltz (video embedded, as well), which is what our heroes and heroines would have known best and been allowed to dance.



The French Waltz

The French waltz was more intimate than the Duke of Kent (should I add an "obviously" here? wink) version, but it still held courtly dance elements to make this (somewhat) acceptable in the English ballroom. I think this particular video (also embedded) is a great one to watch because in it you'll see an important element of what's to come with the controversial German version.




The German Waltz

So, where do we get the controversial version? It was the German version wherein partners were held in a “closed” position, twirling and turning in rapid tempo rather than the slow and stately ballroom dances of typical Georgian England. We don't see this version in ballrooms until 1812, but even then there were rules as to who could dance it. More on that in a moment. For now: This video (embedded, also) of Wilson's Waltz Suite from 1816 is a great depiction of that “closed” position and the twirling, where hands met with body (more on this aspect in a few paragraphs), but still not quite as we think of as the waltz of today. After watching the video, do you not agree it is quite different from the Duke of Kent's waltz and the French waltz? Even in France, the French version of the waltz saw the couples kept at arm’s length, less energetic with the spins, and involving slow and complex patterns that would have been more familiar to English courtly dancing (scroll up to rewatch the previous video for comparison!).


The Waltz in England

While there were rumors about the dance in the English newspapers, as seen in Germany and France, as early as the turn of the 19th century, England held fast against the dance. It was the Duke of Kent's version that allowed the waltz into England's ballrooms. The official date of the first English waltz is 1802. This version (and only this version) was acceptable in England. If a hostess wanted to create a scandal, she could allow the French version danced at her ball, but otherwise it was the Duke of Kent waltz or nothing.


And then two things happened.


In 1812, the patronesses of Almack’s allowed the German version of the waltz to be danced (called “Spinner”), but only if one had been granted permission to do so by a patroness. No self-respecting young lady, however, would agree to dance the waltz, as to do so would label the lady as “fast.” A gentleman would know better than to ask an unmarried lady to dance a waltz. The dance masters would not teach the young, and so even if asked, the unmarried ladies would not know how to dance it. In short, while this version of the waltz had finally made it to the English ballrooms, unmarried ladies would never dance it (and it's still not the waltz we know of today, although it's getting closer in style). Before you get too excited about this German version arriving, it was Anglicized, so not quite the saucy German version after all. More on this in a moment.


And then, in July of 1816, the Prince Regent included it in a ball he hosted (as the Prince was known to do.... If something was controversial, it was almost guaranteed to be featured by the Prince.). It was scandalous and garnered no end of negative attention from the newspapers. Despite the negativity and scandal, this was officially the launching of the saucy version of the waltz into high society.

Illustration of a man introduction a gentleman and lady for dancing at a ball
Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing, 1816

Even when the German version made it to English dancefloors, it was Anglicized, with the most accepted hand positioning being with the man’s right hand raised above the head with fingertips grazing the lady’s, and his left hand lowered in between him and his partner, fingertips grazing, never, ever hands clutched, hands touching body, hands around bodies at the waist (as we saw in the video of the German version), hands touching back, hands on shoulders, or chest to chest embrace. Anglicized or not, I think we can all agree that for our heroes and heroines, this was one intimate dance! The whole dancefloor changed for this waltz. Instead of couples moving up and down set lines, dancers circled the room. No other dance had dancers circling the room.


The Timeline:

  • 16th-17th centuries, waltz is danced by commoners

  • 18th century, waltz is danced by European high society

  • 1790s, the English are hearing about the rise in popularity of the waltz

  • 1802, the Duke of Kent waltz is created, and we see the first waltz danced in English ballrooms

  • 1802-1812, both the Duke of Kent waltz and the French waltz might be seen in English ballrooms

  • 1812-1816, the controversial German waltz (with Anglicized figures) is introduced to English ballrooms


Where to go from here? Despite its acceptance at the assemblies, the waltz stayed on the fringe of acceptability even through the Victorian era, hostesses making the ultimate decision if they wanted to include "dirty dancing" at their private ball. As we leave the 19th century, however, deeply embedded in the Victorian era, we see the beginnings of the waltz we're now most familiar with. Can you see it more clearly in this waltz (embedded below)?




A Few Takeaways

  • The music gained popularity before the dance itself, waltz music appearing in England around 1790, although they were 3/8 triple-time, not yet the 3/4 we would soon hear.

  • The popularity rose following the French revolution, specifically with an increase in waltz music being written. When a ball’s dancing is dependent on the music available, and the music is increasingly a selection of waltzes, well, what’s a majordomo to do?

  • Around 1830, Johann Strauss and Franz Lanner wrote nearly exclusively waltzes of various tempos.

  • We must understand, that even with the introduction of the German waltz in English ballrooms, it was not the waltz we know of today where bodies are held close by partners. The couple remained at all times at arm’s length, their bodies never in contact more than fingertips grazing.

  • What was scandalous about it was that partners did not separate during the course of dance as they should do in all other dances, rather they remained as partners for the entirety of the dance, occasionally the gentleman’s foot disappearing under the lady’s gown during a turn (gasp!). Even the hands that held were never closed. A gentleman’s hand was always left open, almost like a shelf for his partner’s hand to keep her from falling or tripping in the dizzy spins.

  • There are different types of waltzes in terms of steps, some with slow and gliding steps, some with fast spins. The slower versions were not developed until the 20th century.

  • The waltz as we think of it now did not become popular until the turn of the 20th century.






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