Monday, August 13, 2018

The Waltz in Its Early Years

Monday, August 13, 2018

Waltzing 1821
Loretta reports:

Some comments on the kinds of physical activities ladies of the 18th and 19th century engaged in led to me to thinking about dancing, and waltzing in particular.

Early in my writing career, I became aware that the waltz had changed over the years, and the early form of the dance wasn’t quite like what we’re familiar with. Images like the ones I’ve posted here don’t look like the style of waltz we’re used to.

According to Elizabeth Aldrich’s From the Ballroom to Hell, “During the first forty years of the nineteenth century, waltzing couples turned clockwise as partners while traveling counterclockwise around the room. This constant spinning, never reversing, could and did produce a feeling of euphoria—or worse, vertigo—that could result in a loss of control.”
9 Positions of the Waltz 1816

The dance was controversial. Lord Byron disapproved. Yes, really. Others said it was unsuitable for unmarried, highly sensitive, and/or delicate women. I can tell you from my own experience, learning to waltz in a ballroom dancing class, that it is very sexy, and I understood why people disapproved. Also, though I was much younger then, I wasn’t used to ballroom dancing, and one waltz left me a little winded. Even with lots of practice, an entire evening of dancing, in the Regency and Victorian eras, must have provided vigorous exercise.

If you're curious about the precise steps for this era (though they do vary), Carlo Blassis's (trans by R. Barton), The Code of Terpischore, offers a detailed description of the waltz. I have a hard time reading these sorts of instructions, but others of you may be able to picture or re-enact it better.

I wanted to focus on this excerpt, however, which gives a sense of one difference between earlier and later forms of the waltz: “The gentleman should hold the lady by the right hand, and above the waist, or by both hands, if waltzing be difficult for her; or otherwise, it would be better for the gentleman to support the right hand of the lady by his left. The arms should be kept in a rounded position, which is the most graceful, preserving them without motion; and in this position one person should keep as far from the other as the arms will permit, so that neither may be incommoded.” This does correspond with the early 19th century images.

Here is a note from Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society; with a glance at Bad Habits (1836): “If a lady waltz with you, beware not to press her waist; you must only lightly touch it with the open palm of your hand, lest you leave a disagreeable impression not only on her ceinture, but on her mind.”
Cruikshank, Specimens of Waltzing 1817

For a more detailed account of the waltz—with lots of lovely images—you might want to read Paul Cooper’s post at Regency

Images: Waltzing 1821, courtesy Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection; Detail from frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the Waltz, via Wikipedia; Specimens of Waltzing, George Cruikshank, 1817-06-04, courtesy New York Public Library.

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed. FYI: If you order a book through one of my posts, I might get a small share of the sale.


Sarah said...

I am given to understand that the dance on the terrace in Sound of Music is close to the way the waltz was performed at this time, very different to the Viennese or Tennessee waltzes we are used to in the modern era. I have seen a correctly interpreted one as well on a FB page, but I am damned if I can recall where.
here's the link to the Julie Andrews version however, showing the changes of holds described

Eric Stott said...

I have heard that Byron's hatred of the waltz may have (in part) be due to his having a limp.

Cynthia Lambert said...

I am in agreement with Eric Stott regarding Lord Byron. He had a club foot, and waltzing would have emphasized his disability and made him appear clumsy to his peers, so I'm sure that he eschewed it in favour of more measured dances. And yes, even in its earliest forms, the waltz is an intimate, breathless, and very sexy dance. One can understand why there were those that disapproved, but youth being what it is, men and women loved it. It was a rare opportunity for touching for young people, and quite lively, so it didn't take long to catch on.

Thank you for sharing the illustrations. I hadn't seen these before. Interesting to see the evolution of the dance. And no wonder the Strausses burst upon the scene with such popularity in Vienna. Heady stuff.

authorjessicacale said...

Excellent post. It's difficult to imagine dancing clockwise while spinning around the room counter-clockwise, but I can see how that might make you dizzy or euphoric. No wonder it's so popular in romances!

Eric Stott said...

There is a charming story from later in the 19th C. told by Alan Dodworth (one of the famous dance teachers) He writes that at a German spa a young English couple was dancing the newly introduced Reverse Waltz and danced in any direction they chose- this infuriated the other dancers who even tried forming a sort of waltzing blockade to prevent this- but the young couple merely evaded it.

Georgie said...

In the "Waltz 1821" picture, three little maids are shown dancing together. Would that have been common? (In my disco-days, girls woudl commonly dance with each other, piling their handbags in the centre of the group and dancing round them.) Or is the scene from a dancing master's studio, or some less formal setting than a ball?

Eric Stott said...

It may possibly be a figure from a Waltz Quadrille where partners are exchanged- and I wouldn't expect complete accuracy in the drawing/

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