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A Brief History of Waltz

The Evolution of Waltz Dancing

By Erica Simpson


With the soft whisper of a beautiful melody, graceful gowns slightly lift from the floor as flashes of color decorate the ballroom. The waltz is an elegantly executed dance that makes guest appearances in the weddings of today to the coming out of debutantes. The term, "waltz," comes from an old German word (walzen), which means to turn, roll, and glide. With a strong accent on the first beat, this popular form of ballroom dancing is often danced in a step-step-close basic pattern.

As dancers move about the floor and in many cases, appear to glide on air, the waltz we see today would have never entered our knowledge of movement if it weren't for the suburbs of Vienna and the Austrian alpine region. It is here that during the 17th century, the ballrooms of the Hapsburg Court swelled with the sounds of the waltz. Before the upper class residents discovered the turning of such a dance, Austrian and Bavarian peasants were already dancing up a storm to "the weller." At that time, it was quite common to encounter well-known waltz tunes that originated from simple melodic peasant yodels.

The waltz, which is considered as one of the oldest ballroom dances, seems to have spread the greatest during the middle of the 18th century. Some will say the German "Lander" folk dance preceded the Waltz, while others contend that Napoleon soldiers who invaded surrounding regions helped the dance spread from Germany to Paris.

From there, England soon received its first taste of the dance, which eventually found its way to the dance floors of the United States. At first, many locations turned their noses up at the dance because it was the first style of movement that incorporated a modified closed position. Also, they had trouble getting over the fact that the man's hand is placed around his partner's waist.

At the start of 1830, the Waltz became quite a popular act to follow when two Austrian composers by the name of Lanner and Strauss created the Viennese Waltz, which provided a rather quick variation that per minute played at 55 to 60 measures. Although many embraced this form of the dance, the fast tempo caused a bit of a dilemma. Some found it hard to enjoy this latest dance trend because it was a real challenge to preserve steps while staying with the music.

The Waltz in the United States

In the United States, the Waltz found a place in New York City and Philadelphia. By the 19th century, high society in the U.S. were chattering about the dance with the slower tempo. As the end of the 19th century approached, two variations of the dance emerged. The Boston Waltz appeared slower and allowed dancers to take long, gliding steps. This kind of waltz involved fewer and slower turns that incorporated more forward and backward movements than the Viennese Waltz. It is this style that continues to thrive today.

With the American Style Waltz, open dance positions are utilized. Dancers also allow their legs to pass instead of close with this type of waltz. When the Hesitation Waltz was introduced, dancers took one step to three beats of the measure. Although it isnít seen on the dance floors of today, some of the step patterns still exist.

Rumor has it that the first time the Waltz was danced in the United States was in 1834. At the Boston home of Mrs. Otis' Beacon Hill, a dancing expert by the name of Lorenzo Papanti gave a sample of the dance to a crowd of social leaders that were taken aback to say the least. It wasnít until the middle of the 19th century that the U.S. softened towards the dance.

Criticism of the Waltz

Although the Waltz enjoyed a nice amount of acceptance across the board, it was also met with those who felt it was a basic style of dance. During the early recognition of the Waltz, dances like the minuet and other court presentations were quite popular, but took a great deal of practice to master. The Waltz was easy to get the hang of and didnít require proper posture or the understanding of complex figures like other dance selections. Not only did the steps create a buzz, but the close hold and swift turns also came under fire by many. The Waltz even gained the attention of religious leaders, who dismissed the dance as an act of vulgarity. At first, continental court members turned away from the thought, while England took even longer to consider this "lude" style of dance.

The bulk of the 1800s saw extreme criticism over the Waltz, which made headlines every time it was included at a ballroom assembly. Ironically, the older crowd did not embrace the dance, despite the fact that Queen Victoria was known to cut a rug on the ballroom floor with an affinity for the Waltz. The more negative remarks the dance received, the more popular it became and before you knew it, following the French Revolution, dance halls began popping up at every turn. Actually, Paris was home to almost 700.

Different Styles of the Waltz

Throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th century, an assortment of waltz styles illuminated the floors of dance halls. Some of them even shied from the usual 3-4 count, offering versions that were completed in 2-4, 6-8, or 5-4 time. With the Cross Step Waltz, a cross-step was the first move as dancers moved into a line of direction. A wealth of variations branched from this type of waltz, which hit the campus and class scene at Stanford University. In Peru, the Peruvian Waltz flourished, while the Mexican Waltz followed to the tune of Spanish-related melodies. Additional waltzes from around the world included the Venezuelan Waltz and the Mazurka Waltz, which originated in Poland.

The Waltz of Today

The waltz is very much alive throughout the world as dance halls, weddings, and even some proms showcase the basic steps of the dance. In popular major motion pictures, contemporary composers have also utilized the waltz rhythm when creating scores for films, such as Batman and Spiderman. As for the competitive world of ballroom dancing, the Modern Waltz and Viennese Waltz often join the Foxtrot, Quickstep, and Tango as contest categories.

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