Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Modern Dance: The Waltz - The dirty dancing of its time

During the 17th century ballrooms became popular and being dressed for a ball all the more so. The best finery was the order of the day and more and more the noblemen and their partners wore special ballroom slippers, called “dancing shoes” or “pumps.” After the political upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries, dances were no longer the prerogative of the aristocracy alone, and ordinary people started to recreationaly dance. By the mid-19th century, popular dances attracted many participants who performed minuets, quadrilles, polkas, and waltzes all of European origin.

Napoleon's legacy to cultured Europe was fashionable dress balls held in his honour. As soon as Paris succumbed to dancing for pleasure then popularity for such occasions swept through the civilized world. This came at a time when militarism was engulfing the fashionable West and the uniform was the preferred male dress coupled with the new neo-Grecian styles for women. The superb opportunity to display the peacock arrogance of the male contrasted well against the delicate simple line of classic fashion of the female form.

The new dancing steps were more vigorous than the previous minuets and the lady’s shoes did suffer as a consequence. Men wore boots and women wore slippers every bit as delicate as modern ballet shoes. It was common enough for women to take a second pair to the ball. Ladies shoes, or Empire shoes, were low heel pumps sometimes with laces to wrap around the ankle. As a manual of etiquette put it "a ball is too formal a place for anyone to indulge in personal preference, and the massacre of one's shoes had to be borne with stoicism."

After wearing the Empress Josephine discovered a hole in her dancing slipper she complained to her shoemaker. "Ah I see what the problem is, Madame" he exclaimed, "You have walked in them."

By far the most popular dance was the Waltz (German, walzen: to revolve) which had been introduced to the Austrian court in the 17th century. The waltz was a new freedom for couples with its gliding, whirling movements. Whilst incredibly popular it was also considered the dirty dancing of its day. The older generation downright denounced it and young people danced it non-stop.

There were three main problems, couples held themselves temptingly close; they moved into turns at high speeds which was intoxicating to the brain; and the music tempo was fast. In 1760 the performance of waltzes was banned by the church in parts of Germany and elsewhere. Part of condemnation may have been a reaction to the lower classes emulating their betters by taking to public displays of dancing. This may well have accounted for the outburst of moral indignation recorded by contemporaries in the higher strata of society.

To its critics the Waltz was considered "will corrupting", "disgusting" and "immodest” and Lord Byron claimed 'Lewd grasp and lawless contact between dancers in public would not leave much to mystery to the nuptial night.’

Strauss' waltzes dominated popular dance music for the remainder of the nineteenth century. By the time it reached North America in 1816, parents forbade their children to dance it. Waltz instrumental music was outlawed and lambasted by orthodoxy. Needless to say the waltz established itself despite the moribund protestations and in 1855 it was the fad dance. The amazing popularity of the waltz was at least in part due to the opportunity it gave young people to touch intimately in public. New freedoms brought the need for change in clothing styles. In the shadow of the Great War, people stopped dancing it simply because it was mistakenly thought to be a German dance. The Waltz craze passed with the onslaught of the Great War.

By the early 20th century the waltz as an art form was exhausted. It found a final admirer in the French composer Maurice Ravel, whose orchestral piece La Valse (The Waltz) both celebrates the dance's traditions and mourns its passing out of fashion.

Reviewed 26/01/2016

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