A waltz was in progress, and the edges of the dance floor were packed as everyone from eagle-eyed mothers to envious young debutantes watched couples in colourful swirls of every imaginable fabric twirling about. (Recompromising Amanda)
When we think of the waltz the image that often comes to mind is that of perfectly coordinated dancers twirling energetically around a ballroom to the music of Strauss. But it wasn’t always that way. The term ‘waltz’ originally meant a turning dance so there were many variations to it. Even a polka could be considered a waltz and early examples were not confined to the 3/4 or 7/8 time that marks the beat of contemporary waltz music.
The dance got its beginnings in the sixteenth century as a country dance enjoyed by peasants in Austria, Germany and Bohemia. It was all the rage with the higher levels of society in Vienna by the 1780s and was introduced into English society by the King’s German Legion during the Napoleonic Wars.
From the very beginning the waltz was considered scandalous. Men and women were dancing together with their arms around each other! They were dancing face to face! Who could tell what such violations of proper behaviour would lead to? Not surprisingly, despite the horror of their elders, the young men and women who did most of the dancing loved it. It was easy to learn and twirling around the dance floor was just plain fun.
The march of the waltz towards the upper reaches of society was inevitable. In July 1816 the Prince Regent held a ball in London at which the waltz was danced. Prinny might have been a little behind the times. Both the waltz and the quadrille had been introduced as permissible at Almack’s, that bastion of upper class dancing and decorum, in 1814 (although woe betide the frivolous young debutante who dared to waltz without the express permission of the patronesses – that was a one-way ticket to having her voucher revoked).
And the fascination with the strange new dance wasn’t confined to the capital. Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, was published in 1815 and contains a scene wherein the heroine dances the waltz with the dashing and carefree Frank Churchill. Austen wasn’t exactly known for her wild and wicked lifestyle, so it seems clear that by this point just about every was dancing the waltz, if only at private balls and local assemblies.
However, that didn’t mean the scandalous dance was instantly granted general acceptance, even if it had now been publicly favoured by royalty. A blistering editorial in the rather staid Times a few days after the Regent’s ball on July 16 1816 lamented:
We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last … it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females.
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 a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.
Alas for him, the Times editor was left to take what comfort he could in having done his duty by sounding the alarm. It didn’t do any good. Parents would just have to lump it. And lump it they did. The only thing worse for an ambitious mother watching in mortification as her daughter was swept up onto the dance floor so indecorously, was watching her daughter sit on the sidelines while other young women waltzed. The waltz just kept growing in popularity. Long after the Regency had faded into memory, Queen Victoria was unabashedly being twirled around the dance floor as she enjoyed her favourite dance. And you can’t get more respectable than that.