The waltz as we know it today is a graceful dance done to a ¾ beat. It is a popular ballroom dance and is often used as the first dance at a wedding reception. The waltz involves soft, round, flowing movements. The romantic waltz includes a step, slide, and step to the three beats of a measure (one-two-three). The dancers use a long first step corresponding to the accented first beat of each measure, then two short steps. Dancers are supposed to move their shoulders smoothly, parallel with the floor.
The waltz was very popular in the 1800s and 1900s, the Romantic Era. It was especially popular in Vienna. The waltz began as the “Landler,” an Austro-German folks dance. It was also used in the Viennese suburbs and the Austrian alpine regions as far back as the early 1600s. The music of Johann Strauss helped to popularize the waltz as we now know it.
The waltz is considered an elegant, sophisticated dance today, but the simple one-two-three steps were once considered scandalous and disgraceful. For the first time in history the partners were face to face, in close physical proximity. The hands could freely range over a partner’s body, which created unique opportunities for physical interaction between the dancers. An entry in the 1825 Oxford English Dictionary described the waltz as “riotous and indecent.”
A poem by Horace Hornem (Lord Byron) describes this new form of dancing:
Round all the confines of the yielded waist,
The strangest hand may wander undisplaced;
The lady’s hand may grasp as much
As princely paunches offer her to touch.
Pleased round the chalky floor how well they trip,
One hand reposing on the royal hip. (Waltz, an Apostrophic Hymn)
While this face to face dance position seems innocent enough in today’s dance world, many “proper” people at the time were horrified. Novelist Sophie van La Roche described it as the “shameless, indecent whirling-dance of the Germans that broke all the bounds of good breeding,” in her novel Geshicte des Frauleins von Sternheim, written in 1771.
“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.”
-The Times of London, 1816
Waltzes were written for dancing, but also for listening. Brahms and Chopin were especially fond of the waltz. A very famous and popular waltz is the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss. The Blue Danube Waltz is played at midnight every New Year on TV and radio stations across Austria. This waltz has been used in many movies and other places:
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Simpsons
The next time you’re dancing, watching or listening to a waltz, let your imagination run wild. You decide whether the waltz is elegant and classy or obscene and scandalous – or something else.
Find a waltz on “Classical Favorites” CD and listen.