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Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Romance and Allure of the Viennese Waltz (Silent Communication through Dance)


Capturing the Viennese Waltz

For anyone who’s ever watched any of the dancing shows on TV such as “So You Think You Can Dance” or the immensely popular “Dancing With The Stars,” it is well known that the Viennese Waltz is one of the most anticipated dances there are.

It is graceful, elegant, romantic and simply sublime. To watch a couple glide and rotate effortlessly across the dance floor is quite a sight to behold. However, modern day people probably don’t realize just how controversial this dance it.

The younger Johann Strauss probably never realized how he would revolutionize dance when he composed his musical masterpiece, The Blue Danube or An der schönen blauen Donau, its long name, which translates to “By the beautiful, blue Danube.”

Evolution of the dance
Viennese Waltz
Although Austria is the birthplace of the Viennese Waltz, the dance’s origins could be traced as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries from Bavaria in Germany. The waltz had humble beginnings, starting out as s fold dance in triple time. It was mentioned in a publication of French philosopher Montaigne, where he described a gliding and sliding dance with partners holding each other too closely for their faces to almost touch. That was in 1580 when he was in Augsburg, a city in Bavaria. The dance called Nach Tanz or After Dance is said to be the precursor of the Viennese Waltz. Some claim that it evolved from the Deutscher Tanz or the German Dance. Another account of the origins of the dance claims that it emerged from the dance style Volta from Provence in France back in the 12th century. Pierre-Auguste Renoir did a painting in 1883 entitled Bal à Bougival that features a couple dancing what could be the waltz.

It was in the Vienna Congress of 1814 that the world got to see just how beautiful the dance was. It was part of the opening festivities for the Congress after the fall of Napoleon, when representatives from all over Europe held an international conference to prevent another war and maintain the stability and peace within Europe. Prince Klemens von Metternich was at that time the Minister of State of Austria and was also acting as the Congress president. After the Congress, it became more acceptable to dance the Viennese Waltz.

Austria’s Export

The Viennese Waltz was popularized by Austrians in the capital city of Vienna in the 1800s. After all, Austria is the homeland of “The Waltz King,” Johann Strauss II. This composer is widely credited for popularizing the waltz in the capital city of Austria in the 19th century. Large dance halls opened in Vienna to accommodate the thousands of dancers trying out the new dance craze. The music of Josef Lanner, Johann Strauss Senior and Johann Strauss II became more popular alongside the heightened popularity of the Viennese Waltz.

Difference from other ballroom dances

In the German language, the dance is called Wiener Walzer. This genre of ballroom dancing deviated greatly from other dances. For one thing, it is the first of the ballroom dances that is done in a closed hold position. This made it seem as if the couple is embracing each other, rather than respectfully facing each other.
The Viennese Waltz is also danced at 180 beats a minute, which is faster than other dances which are done in 90 beats per minute. This made it livelier, which is why the young couples enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Viennese Waltz is considered a rotary dance since the two dancers face each other and are always turning to the right or left of the leader. It comprises turns and change steps in its purest form.

Viennese Waltz differs from other types of dances in that the couple turns continuously left and right while moving in a counterclockwise direction rather than passing each other on the dance floor. The true waltz from Vienna has basic steps, consisting of change steps and turns.

Also, the Viennese Waltz allowed the couple to dance at their own pace and to follow their own steps. This is very much different from the norm wherein communal dance sequences were performed. Before the advent of the waltz, the Master of Ceremony in a given ball would have a pre-set pattern that all the dancers had to follow.  This didn’t give dancers much leeway or variety when it came to dancing.

A scandalous dance

When first introduced to high society, the conservatives were scandalized by the perceived intimacy of the Viennese Waltz.

The women would hold their long gowns with one hand in order to avoid tripping on their hem or getting their long skirt stepped on while dancing. However, in lifting the gown, it propelled the body forward so that the dance had to be performed in close proximity with the partner. The lady’s hand holding the skirt up is held by the male. Her other hand rests on the upper arm of her partner, below the shoulder joint. The male’s other hand holds the lady by her waist, to give man leading the dance to have the impetus to guide and pull the lady in the turns. This obviously caused conservative eyebrows to rise due to morality issues. Before the 19th century, it was forbidden for male and female dance partners to have any contact with other parts of the body except for the hands.

Polite society was both enthralled and appalled with the Viennese Waltz. Dance historian Belinda Quirey said, “The advent of the waltz in polite society was quite simply the greatest change in dance norm and dancing manners that has happened in our history.” That was because in Europe at that time, most dances are communal and the emcee would announce the pre-set pattern that all dancers must follow. The dancers should always be facing the spectators, while when dancing the waltz partners are facing one another, rather than the audience.

At the end of the 18th century, written materials were even distributed criticizing and questioning the morality of the dance. Salomo Jakob Wolf even wrote a treatise in 1797 entitled "Proof that the waltz is a main source of the weakness of body and mind or our generation; most urgently recommended to the sons and daughters of Germany." It was fortunate that nobody heeded his suggestions. It was even labeled erotic by Ernst Moritz Arndt, an 18th century nationalistic author and poet from Germany.

When the Viennese Waltz hit the dance scene, matrons were scandalized while men and women secretly relished the closer contact afforded by the dance. The Viennese Waltz was considered highly controversial; some hostesses did not allow it to be danced in their ballrooms. Also, unmarried women had to get special permission to be able to dance it, as it was considered in many social circles as quite scandalous. In many instances, only married women were allowed to dance the “unchaste dance” for fear of corrupting the character of young maidens.

Courtship on the dance floor

Men and women conducted courtship rituals quite differently during the Regency Era. Since there were very strict standards of contact and highly supervised interactions between the man and the woman, the dance floor during balls was the only time that men and women could engage in conversation with some level of privacy.

If a man showed interest in a particular woman, he would ask to fill out her dance card. This is a small booklet of translucent paper attached to the gloved wrist of a woman, where a man would pencil in his name for a specific dance at the start of the ball. A woman would then have a scheduled list of dances with a different range of partners.

However, it was deemed highly inappropriate and quite scandalous to dance with the same partner for more than two dances. The acceptable maximum was two dances per partner and any more would place the couple under much unfavorable scrutiny.

Choosing to dance the Viennese Waltz in the 19th century helped many romances to blossom, expressed the couple’s spirit of adventure, liberal ideals and dancing skills on the dance floor.

A political dance

There is a political aspect to the Viennese Waltz that people may not know about. The younger Strauss, who is still regarded in Austria the same way Germans revere Mozart, was a liberal. His waltzes reflected his liberal ideals, which might be why the dance is so lively, a reflection of the passion for freedom and democracy during the time of the Habsburgs. The dance was even called the “Marseillaise of the heart” by Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick, whose taste in music was quite conservative. La Marseillaise of course is the stirring national anthem of France. For some music romanticists, the Viennese Waltz was regarded as the reason why Austria didn’t have a revolution even when other European nations were at war.

Spread of the waltz

Despite the scandalous reputation of the dance, or perhaps because of it, the Viennese Waltz spread to various ballrooms across Europe.

When other forms of ballroom dancing emerged and people’s tastes began to shift, the Viennese Waltz lost some of its popularity. However, the waltz would once again spread to various parts of the world, thanks largely to immigration. The Slovenians that settled in Ohio brought the dance to the country, later on creating the American Waltz.

Three types of waltz are common today. The Modern Waltz is a slow waltz that was born between the 1920s and the 1930s. It is popularly used in ballroom competitions. The Viennese Waltz is the quick waltz. Although no longer that popular, this type of waltz could also be danced in competitions despite its limited variations and number of figures. The third type is the Classical or Old Time Waltz that was a popular ballroom dance during the 19th century.


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