From Debauchery to “Strictly” – A Light-Hearted Look at the History of the Waltz

While ‘Twerking’,’bumpin’ and ‘grinding’ around the dancefloor may raise eyebrows among more prudish folk today, once upon a time believe it or not, even the good old Waltz was frowned upon for being far too risqué.

Today, of course, more people than ever are dancing the Waltz at Karen Hardy Studios and it’s a mainstay on Strictly Come Dancing.

But back in 1580, long before the birth of Len Goodman et al, a French chap named Montaigne claimed to have first spotted the social dance and all hell broke loose because (get ready for this) – men and women were clutching each other so tightly that their faces touched! Disgraceful.

A contemporary of Monsieur Montaigne, a man called Kunz Haas, attempted to sum up what he saw degrading the peasant dens of the time.

He explained: “Now they are dancing the godless Weller or Spinner.” “The vigorous peasant dancer, following an instinctive knowledge of the weight of fall, utilizes his surplus energy to press all his strength into the proper beat of the measure, thus intensifying his personal enjoyment in dancing”.

By godless he meant ‘completely disgusting’ but the rest of his wordy description of the early Waltzes made it sound jolly good fun as far as we’re concerned.

And naturally, the prim and proper aristocrats in Bohemia (Czech Republic), Austria and Bavaria (Germany) – where the dance originated – could never have been seen clutching and clasping the opposite sex in society, so, by 1750 bored senseless with the stuffy minuet, crafty noblemen were sneaking off to servants’ balls to partake in the newly-named “Waltzer”.

There’s no doubt these Lords, Princes and Kings were having the time of their lives, but then not everyone in and around court was so impressed, including a German novelist of the day Sophie von La Roche.

In her 1771 book Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (the first ever girly novel in Germany) she let rip about people partaking in the Waltz in no uncertain terms.

She wrote: “But when he put his arm around her, pressed her to his breast, cavorted with her in the shameless, indecent whirling-dance of the Germans and engaged in a familiarity that broke all the bounds of good breeding—-then my silent misery turned into burning rage.”

Ooops.

The Waltz, which evolved over the years from a ‘hopping’ to a ‘gliding’ dance and has undergone many German-sounding name changes along the way, finally became popular in Britain during the Regency period (early 1800s), because the wife of the then Russian ambassador (Dorothea Lieven) said it was a good thing to do.

But it was our lads, fresh back from battling with Napoleon’s forces, which first introduced it to these islands having spotted such goings on in Europe, and it took off here!

Back in the day an influential dance master and author of instruction manuals, Thomas Wilson, published A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing in 1816.
People were getting into “Waltzing” in a big way, but the “do-gooders” were still “tutting” under their breath and as late at 1825 the Oxford English Dictionary continued to describe the “Waltz” as “riotous and indecent”.

But, 1825 would turn out to be a breakthrough year for the dance because it is then that we saw the arrival of a certain Johann Strauss II.

The Austrian composer was to the Waltz what Simon Cowell is to pop music and make no mistake about it.
In all he composed more than 400 pieces of music including the classic Blue Danube Waltz, that famous one that Andre Rieu can’t get enough of.

And so once the tamer Western Europeans had learned to accept that touching during a dance was fine, the Waltz became a popular pastime.

From there the style inspired many other dances, mostly named after the countries in which they became adopted and adapted, for example, the American Style Waltz, the Scandinavian Waltz, the Peruvian Waltz, the Mexican Waltz, the Cajun Waltz, the Cuban (or Tropical) Waltz – you get the point…..
Oh okay, here’s a few some more – the Venezuelan Waltz, the Contra Waltz (Freeform Waltz), the Valse Musette and the Cross-Step Waltz (French Valse Boston).

So, there we have it, from once being a “raunchy romp” for the peasant folk of central Europe nearly five hundred years ago, the Waltz has evolved to become one of the most celebrated and popular routines within the ballroom.

And, it is also one that we just love to teach here at Karen Hardy Studios.
To learn how to Waltz at our award-winning studios, call us on 0207 731 7316.

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