The History of the Waltz

A formal couple dancing the waltz

The waltz is considered a sophisticated social dance by contemporary standards, but it has a scandalous history. The simple one-two-three steps weren't always as simple and innocent as they appear.

From Peasant to Posh

The Waltz had humble beginnings in rural Germany. In the mid 18th century, peasants began to dance something called the landler in Bohemia, Austria, and Bavaria. At the time, the sophisticated upper class was dancing to the minuet at their balls, but the peasants' dance was so much more fun that noblemen would attend the lower class gatherings just to enjoy it.

The dance was to 3/4 time music and involved couples rotating around the dance floor. It eventually became known as the walzer (from the Latin volvere, meaning rotate). However, it was not the rotation that gave the waltz its notoriety, it was the position that the dancers took, a "closed" dance position, face to face. While this seems innocent enough in today's dance world, at the time it horrified many "proper" folk, such as novelist Sophie von La Roche, who described it as the "shameless, indecent whirling-dance of the Germans" that "...broke all the bounds of good breeding," in her novel Geshichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, written in 1771.

Scandalous or not, the waltz became immensely popular, spreading from Germany to the dance halls of Paris as soldiers returned from the Napoleonic wars. By the mid18th century, it had spread to England in spite of, or perhaps because of, its continued notoriety. An entry in the 1825 Oxford English Dictionary described the waltz as "riotous and indecent."

Speeding Things Up

One of the earliest appearances of the waltz in a play was in the opera Una Cosa Rara by Soler in 1786. This set the tempo of the waltz at andante con moto, which is defined as "a walking pace." To this day, many waltzes are still danced at this smooth and sedate pace. However, around 1830 the Austrian composers Lanner and Strauss composed a series of of pieces that as an ensemble became known as the Viennese Waltz. This was a very fast music played at about 55 - 60 measures per minute, or (to use today's music terminology) about 165-180 beats per minute. Suddenly, the slow and sedate dance moves were wild and frenetic, couples whirling around the dance floor at almost dangerous speeds. Rather than replacing the original waltz, Viennese style waltzing became a popular alternative, especially among young dancers who wanted to show off their athletic prowess. It remains a popular social dance as well as an integral part of ballroom dance competitions.

Waltzing to America

It's not clear when exactly the waltz crossed the Atlantic to America, but by the end of the 19th century it was an established part of the U.S. dance scene. Of course the Americans had their own particular variations, such as the "Boston" waltz, which slowed down the tempo in favor of long, gliding dance steps and fewer circular motions. American style waltzes eventually developed several "open" dance positions as well. Another key difference in what has become known as the American waltz (as opposed to the international version), is that the dancers' legs cross each other with each step as opposed to closing together. These variations have remained parts of the waltz canon to the current day.

The Hesitation Variation

Another American modification to the European style waltz was known as "the Hesitation Waltz." This was almost the complete opposite of the fast-tempo of the Viennese waltz, with the dancers moving one step to every three beats of music (played at the andante tempo). Unlike the Boston and Viennese waltzes, the Hesitation waltz did not stand the test of time and it is no longer danced socially or competitively. However, some of the ornamentations and dance moves in waltz choreography still reflect this kind of slow, measured movement.

Waltz Around the World

The steady one-two-three, one-two-three beat of the waltz has spread throughout the world as a staple of ballroom dancing, easy to learn but with enough variations and intricacies to keep it interesting. Many other dances, such as the polka, are derivatives of the original waltz, and it's often one of the first dances taught at ballroom dance halls such as Fred Astaire Dance Studios. Whether it's portrayed as a romantic dance between Cinderella and her prince, or a high-speed Viennese-style competition on Dancing with the Stars, the waltz is a significant and inextricable force in the history of ballroom dance.

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The History of the Waltz