“What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! — There is nothing like dancing after all. — I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.”
“Certainly, Sir; — and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. — Every savage can dance.”
Mr. Darcy’s snide retort to the oblivious Sir William Lucas might have had a different resonance with Austen’s contemporaries than it does with modern readers. I always read it in the past with racial overtones, and I think a lot of modern scholars put a post-colonial interpretation on it. The word “savage” undeniably has its colonial implications, yet it is possible Mr. Darcy refers not to the indigenous people of distant continents, but rather to Europe’s very own German and Austrian peasantry, spinning about scandalously wrapped in each other’s arms. You see when Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, Regency society was just being hit with the dance revolution called the waltz. This infiltration from the continent was considered just as libidinous in its time as the pelvic thrusts of Elvis Presley were in his, maybe even more so. Society seems to have had three main objections to the waltz: it required very little training (always dangerously egalitarian), the “closed hold” brought the bodies of dancers together into a heretofore unheard of degree of intimacy, and it eliminated the passing of one’s partner to another, keeping a couple anti-socially focused on only each other throughout a set. Jane Austen herself probably never danced a true waltz, being thirty-six and a confirmed spinster when the dance finally made its official debut at Almacks in 1812. Nevertheless, many Austenesque fiction writers can’t resist the urge to portray our heroes and heroines engaged in a waltz. We’re in good company, as neither can Disney. Admittedly, one can’t quite float on air through the steps of a country line dance (nor maintain a solid conversation), but I’m not sure that’s enough to explain the unique grasp the waltz has on our imaginations. It takes a very special dance to hold humanity entranced for hundreds of years, and it’s ubiquity shows no signs of abating.
I was so fortunate as to spend New Year’s Day at the stunningly beautiful Schloss Schönbrunn, the former summer residence of the Hapsburg imperial family. It is hard to visit without having your thoughts turned to the waltz. Walking through the Great Gallery one can vividly imagine the dancers at countless balls across the centuries, twirling about in fabulous gowns and frock coats (they do not allow photography at the schloss, but you can enjoy an excellent virtual tour of all the rooms open to the public at the Schönbrunn website). This is where the waltz as we know it was born, amidst the dazzling splendor of 18th century Vienna, but its ancestry is far more humble. The waltzer, a dance for two persons, first developed around the mid-18th century amongst the alpine peasantry in Germany and Austria. At the same time the ländler, another couples dance, became popular with peasants across the Alps, from Switzerland to Slovenia (see it performed in The Sound of Music above). Aristocrats, for generations constrained to performing intricate and controlled dances like the minuet and allemande, seem to have developed something like envy for the freedom allowed their underlings, and the gentleman are said to have snuck off to the parties of their servants in order to indulge in the new fad. Eventually a new form of allemande developed in Vienna, backed by the likes of Mozart, melding the traditional court dance with that of the peasantry. The allemande was always characterized by intricate arm formations and hand grasps with one’s partner. Now the close hold was introduced. A few more refinements from the dance masters – less stamping, more gliding – and the waltz was well on its way to arguably being the biggest dance craze of all time. By the beginning of the 19th century, everyone was waltzing except the Brits.
The Napoleonic Wars are certainly much to blame for delaying the waltz’s arrival in London, but society in England was also more conservative than that on the Continent. Dances such as the Duke of Kent’s Waltz (see it performed above) were popular at the turn of the century, but these received their names from the act of spinning with one’s partner in a tight circle and did not incorporate the closed hold. It wasn’t until after the Regency officially began that the waltz had it’s shocking debut. That first waltz at Almack’s was still very different from the forms codified a few decades later, possibly resembling the new form of allemande more than anything else. A version of this survives as a traditional German folk dance and can provide some notion of what it might have looked like. Compare the video of it below to that of the baroque allemande to get an idea of how the peasant’s waltzer and ländler influenced the dances of the European royal courts.
Whatever it looked like (we will probably never know for certain), the scandal was very real. Even the infamous Lord Byron, no prude by any means, was appalled by the dance and wrote a poem expressing his horror entitled The Waltz in 1813, the same year the world was introduced to Lizzy and Darcy (read the poem in it’s entirety here). This is an excerpt just to give you an idea of how overtly sexual Byron considered the dance:
But ye—who never felt a single thought
For what our morals are to be, or ought;
Who wisely wish the charms you view to reap,
Say—would you make those beauties quite so cheap?
Hot from the hands promiscuously applied,
Round the slight waist, or down the glowing side,
Where were the rapture then to clasp the form
From this lewd grasp and lawless contact warm?
At once love’s most endearing thought resign,
To press the hand so press’d by none but thine;
To gaze upon that eye which never met
Another’s ardent look without regret;
Approach the lip which all, without restraint,
Come near enough—if not to touch—to taint;
If such thou lovest—love her then no more,
Or give—like her—caresses to a score;
Her mind with these is gone, and with it go
The little left behind it to bestow.
The sanctity of feminine virtue aside, the waltz was in England to stay. The politicos and socialites who flocked to the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815 came home fully enrapt. The danced received the highest sanction in July of 1816, to great uproar. First came the announcement on the 11th of the publication of dance master Thomas Wilson’s A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing (which you can view in its entirety here). This codification of the dance for polite society must have been all the Regent was waiting for, as a mere three days later he held a ball at which the waltz was said to be danced for the first time by the royal court (The London Times, 16 July, 1816). Below see an instructional video for the version of the dance as described by Wilson (skip to the very end to watch the steps danced in succession).
For decades to come the waltz would continue to be condemned for it’s crudeness and sexuality. Even Queen Victoria’s firm advocacy would not completely silence detractors. Would we like the waltz so much if it had? For we cannot deny, even from our jaded, modern perspectives, that the waltz is sexy. It always has been and always will be, even in a world where twerking is socially acceptable. Maybe especially in a world with twerking. What would Mr. Darcy say if he could see that?
Let’s end on a far prettier image and enjoy one last video, this one filmed at Schönbrunn, both in front of the palace and in the Great Gallery. It’s a beautiful demonstration of the art and elegance with which this once rustic dance was eventually imbued. The music is the Kaiser Waltz by the waltz master himself, Johann Strauss, and features a ballet interpretation of the music as well as Viennese waltzers. The lead ballerinas are in the guises of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth (better known as Sisi), who ruled the Austrian Empire for most of the 19th century.
For more information on the history of the waltz in England, please read Cheryl A. Wilson’s excellent essay, The Arrival of the Waltz in England, 1812, to which this piece owes a great debt. I also relied on this post which provides a broader overview of the history of the waltz.