The Seduction of the Waltz

The Seduction of the Waltz

Thomas Rowlandson’s frontispiece for “A Selection of Most Admired and Original German Waltzes” by Edward Jones, 1806

“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;

1815 print by Henry Meyer after G. Williams, courtesy of The British Museum

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.

28 Responses to The Seduction of the Waltz

  1. Interesting post. It’s fascinating to see how times have changed and how things, like the waltz, that were considered scandalous in the past are things that would be considered innocent today.

  2. My favorite is the Sound of Music. Speaking of dancing, my first husband’s parents were the founders of the Hawaii Ballroom Dance Association with over 20 chapters in the islands. My husband took lessons in his youth and even gave a samba exhibition with his cousin when they were students at Wash U. But did we ever take lessons????? Did he ever teach me???? Did we ever go???? NO. Well, if we lived in Hawaii, we would have taken classes with his parents. Second husband… Well, I have asked him and is pretty much a flat NO on that end too, even though there is a studio just down the street. He doesn’t care for that “style,” although we will manage to shuffle along at his company Christmas Party. Of course when I was younger I studied, Ballet, Jazz & Tap, so it would have been fun to try. I have a student right now who has been studying the Tango with her husband for over 20 years and they went to Buenos Aries over break just to dance. Enough of rant. Loved the post. Jen ?

    • Hah! At least your husband can dance. Mine Mr. Darcy pulls a trick out of Laura Hile’s book and turns into Mr. Collins on the dance floor. The results are bruised toes and whiplash. I took ballroom dancing as a kid (I went to that kind of a school) but haven’t done it since. It was fun, if socially terrifying. Sixty 6th graders in a ballroom and all the boys want to dance with only two of the girls. What an awful age. To quote another favorite musical, “I’m glad I’m not young anymore,” but I do wish I could go dancing. Might just have to pursue that solo. Wasn’t this fun? Rant To me whenever you like.

  3. I love this post, Alexa. It answered some of my questions since I’ve wondered about the history of the waltz. I’d heard that Regency society frowned upon it, and I wondered how and when it finally became accepted.

    • I’m so glad it was helpful! It’s easy to find contemporary accounts of waltzing, but drawings don’t give us much of an idea of what it actually looked like, do they?

  4. Excellent post and visuals. This is the first time I have seen the 1896 drawing. Lady Sarah Spencer wrote to her brother , around 1896, that some royals and nobles had danced a waltz at a garden party held at Althorpe.
    In Emma , Mrs. Weston plays a waltz at the inn where a ball was held. It has generally been thought that this was a dance called a waltz but not the one of 1811.
    I think Byron was being satirical and pretending to be one of the horror stricken. Lady Caroline Lamb says he didn’t want her to dance the waltz but who can tell when she tells the truth.
    Wilson’s Companion to the Ballroom has several dances called waltzes but he also has a notice of a forthcoming book about the German, French, and Belgian waltzes. I read that one of the more successful activities at the Congress of Vienna was waltzing.

    • I agree with your assessment of the waltz played in Emma. It would be one of the many dances called waltzes because of the spinning partners and not one incorporating a closed hold (I wouldn’t look to Highbury for any newfangled innovation).

      Regarding Byron, the accounts I have read (see article sited at the end of the post for one) suggest he truly was shocked upon first seeing the waltz performed. I did read through the poem several times prior to quoting it here looking for signs of sarcasm (which certainly would be more in keeping with his morality), but I think he’s being pretty earnest. It’s a remarkable reminder of how rebellious the waltz really was. Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      • I have always taken it as a satire because of the name and persona of the person supposedly portrayed in the poem. Lady Caroline Lamb says that Byron refused to let her waltz but she told so many lies one can’t always tell when she is telling the truth. She invited Byron to a waltz morning. Miss Milbanke was also a guest at that party arranged for people to learn the new dance. There was quite a negative reaction to the waltz in the newspapers. The accounts of the dance in the newspapers and the poem of 1812 all point to the dance being popular and performed in enough public assemblies for people to take notice. I doubt there would have been that outcry if only aristocrats were dancing the waltz.

  5. Growing up I remember learning dance steps. Now…I am not sure what the kids are doing. These videos were wonderful. In the P&P movie, with Matthew Macfadyen, he shows Darcy silently mouthing as he counts the steps in the dance with Kira Knightley’s Elizabeth. I’m not sure I could keep up a conversation and remember where I was supposed to be in the line. This post was delightful. Thank you for all your research and work pulling it together.

  6. I love that piece of music. Thank you so much for including it. Listening now and being swept away on a tide of emotion!!!!

  7. Great post, Alexa! Thank you for all of the images, videos and poems. In particular, that ‘1815 print by Henry Meyer after G. Williams, courtesy of The British Museum,’ really does look amazingly scandalous. I mean, wow! If that’s what waltzing was like, no wonder people were horrified when it appeared in their world of white-gloved hand holding and walking around your partner, hardly touching at all.

    Also, I like your point about it being an issue with socializing. I hadn’t though of that. People weren’t supposed to spend so much time in exclusively each other’s company, but rather were to mingle. The waltz took them from speed dating to going out for ice cream (no idea what people do on dates, lol, but you get the idea). It was obviously a threat to the very fabric of society!

    And yes, the temptation to have our characters waltz, even though it was unlikely they would, is very strong. It’s scandalous, forbidden and all together romantic 🙂

    • Thanks, Summer! Isn’t the print awesome? I love that the national museums in Britain make so much of their materials available for fair use. Wish I had print of this one.

      I sent Darcy and Lizzy twenty years into the future and through hell and back in order to historically rationalize my waltz scene. Well, maybe that wasn’t entirely the motivation, but the dance really healed all three of us (and a bunch of readers, too, I suspect).

  8. Really enjoyed this – thank you. I was once lucky enough to waltz with my wife to the Blue Danube at a ball in the Hofburg Winter Palace in Vienna. I’d have enjoyed it more except I spent most of the time just trying not to hit anyone: the dance floor was packed and the Viennese are a little (lot) better at dancing than me.

  9. Wow, what a fascinating post Alexa. I hadn’t realised that the waltz had such humble origins. Thanks for adding all the videos, too. I’ll have to come back and watch them later on my PC, as the sound on this iPad no longer works and though I’ve tried watching the first one in silence, it just doesn’t work!

    In our modern times, it’s hard to imagine the furore that it caused, isn’t it? What would they have made of the tango, or even the film “Dirty Dancing”?

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Anji! I had a great time putting this together. Since moving to Switzerland I’ve been fostering a growing fascination with german culture, and I’m always searching for whatever vague Austen associations I can. The waltz danced right into my hands.

      Don’t you love that scene in Lost in Austen with Mr. Darcy in modern London? I always imagine Anne Elliot sharing her impressions of the modern world with me. She is particularly appalled by the noise.

      • Darcy in modern London is one of my favourite parts from Lost in Austen!

        I’ve only just managed to watch the videos on my PC and I think the clip from The Sound of Music is my favourite of them all. I can just imagine Darcy and Elizabeth dancing that one.

  10. Very interesting. I went to a civil reenactment ball a while back and had the opportunity to waltz. Dressed in period clothing and hearing a small orchestra play made it absolutely magical. I understand why it was considered scandalous at the time. It is a very intimate and beautiful dance. Dancing it now in the modern world though makes one feel transported through time. Thanks for the history.

    • You’re welcome! Unfortunately, my husband has no interest in dancing whatsoever, so I haven’t waltz in decades. I would love to have the experience you did. It’s magical just to watch.

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