Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Waltz - From Outrageous to Acceptable in Six Years?

I recently acquired a print and text from the fashion journal la Belle Assemblee for February 1817 with a charming print of "A group of waltzers" and it was so different in tone from the other prints of waltzing in my collection that I did a little digging to see what I could find out about attitudes to the waltz.

The dance originated in Germany in the 16thc as a country dance and by the 1780s there are references to how shocking it is that members of the German aristocracy have taken it up. Even in its country of origin the holds and something about the rythym of the dance caused severe doubts about its morality. The image on the left is from the French publication Le Bon Genre and is undated, but it must be at least 1810 as the version below, an English print acknowledging the French original, is dated to that year.

Both versions are caricatures that make the dance seem dangerous and sexual. The couple on the left in both versions, seem to be anticipating quite another form of exercise!

Some authors say that the dance was introduced to England in 1816 by Princess Lieven, one of the patronesses of Almack's, but Raikes dates its arrival to 1813 and Gronow to 1815. In fact it must have been known here earlier as the prints show.

The Mirror of the Graces, a handbook on costume and female etiquette written by "A Lady of Distinction" and published in the UK in 1811 has this to say on the subject-
But with regard to the lately introduced German waltz, I cannot speak so favourably. I must agree with Goette,[sic] when writing of the national dance of his country, "that none but husbands and wives can with any propriety be partners in the waltz."
There is something in the close approximation of persons, in the attitudes, and in the motion, which ill agrees with the delicacy of woman, should she be placed in such a situation with any other man than the most intimate connection she can have in life. Indeed, I have often heard men, of no very over-strained feeling, say, "that there are very few women in the world with whom they could bear to dance the Grman waltz."

But by the time of the Belle Assemblee (1817) print and article, the attitude seems rather different. This was an expensive journal, bought by the upper classes and read by matrons with daughters to launch onto the Marriage Mart - not a group likely to take kindly to the promotion of a dubious dance, although the whole article appears to be a puff for the book mentioned in the text.

The scene is rather odd - the ballroom has only three groups of dancers and the three young ladies appear rather out of place. However, from the accompanying text, this would appear to be a dancing class or demonstration. I found the text facinating with its description of a veariety of waltz styles, so I have copied it in full.

It is so well known that dancing, from the earliest ages, with persons of all denominations and in all countries, has been esteemed not only a species of polite amusement and recreative pleasure, but also a healthy exercise, so as to require scarcely any further comment to recommend it. Waltzing is a species of this amusement; and notwithstanding that it is capable, from the beautiful simplicity of its graceful movements, of affording to its votaries much pleasing and delightful practice, many prejudices have long existed agaisnt it, arising from the extravagant manner of performing it peculiar to those countries in which it was till lately so generally practised. By the more immediate and recent extensive communications with the Continent, waltzing has become a prevalent species of amusement in this country; and that it is equally chaste with quadrilles, English country dances etc becomes clearly obvious on the perusal of a late publication by Mr. Wilson, Dancing-Master, entitled "A Description of the correct Method of German and French Waltzing." The Embellishment to which this subject refers, represents a lady and gentleman performing the French slow waltz;  the lady having (what is technically termed) turned a Pirouette, and the gentleman performed a Pas de Bourie.

The three ladies in the centre are performing an Allemande waltz; the composition of which, in point of beautiful figure, attitude, and varied effect, affords ample opportunity to the dancers of displaying all the grace, ease, and elegance of which the human figure is capable.
The couple on the right are represented as performing the Jette, or quick Sauteuse waltz; in the perfomance of which the agility of the dancers may be fully displayed, as it can only be properly performed by "tripping it on the light fantastic toe;" it also afford pleasing, and occasionally desirable, recreation after enjoying the performance of the more easy and graceful movements of which the slow waltz is composed."
I can imagine the scenes in many a Mayfair drawing room as the young ladies of the house attempted to leap about on their toes and reluctant brothers were drafted in to assist as partners while Mama stood by, torn between worries over how respectable it all was and a desire that her daughter be in the forefront of fashion!

Louise Allen


Jan Jones said...

Gosh, all VERY fascinating, Louise. So many different styles!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I love your newly acquired print, Louise. 'Decadent' is definitely the word for it! One can see why Mamas were so alarmed.

Even in the other, more decorous print, the gentleman's hand seems to be becoming rather intimately acquainted with the young lady's bust as she performs her pirouette. Still, she doesn't look as though she has any objection.

Stephen said...

The Mirror of Graces is known for its discussion of "Literary ladies", which our Lady of Distinction places between the sections on "Slatterns" and "Rich slovens".

The Liz Jones of her day?

Anonymous said...

I came across this snippet on the internet re the introduction of the waltz at the English court, not sure if you've seen it. I can't verify the source though, I don't have access to the Times archives.

"We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last ... it is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion." (Source: The Times of London, 16th July 1816)

Read more: Waltz History
Dance Fitness Sports

Makes one wonder what the writer of this article would have said about, say, the tango. ;) (says this Austrian who's not particularly good at waltzing. Or tango, for that matter.)