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Ballroom Dance Bashed and Re-Bashed: Controversial Moments in the Waltz's History

Updated on August 10, 2012

What comes to mind when someone mentions the queen mother of ballroom dances, the waltz?

When people think of the waltz, they think of how graceful it is. Children generally think of princesses they see on TV, movie screens, or videos in flowing, pastel gowns. They can be seen in huge castle ballrooms swirling while holding their princes as triple-time music played. Even media companies besides the magical Walt Disney Company (famous for its portrayals of royal princesses) portrayed the princess-waltz analogy so well.

For adults, they associate the dance with ballrooms as well. For maturity's sake, they analogize it with the music of the Strauss family (notably those of Johann and Johann II). Also, they think of ballroom dancing competitions where couples swirled to the music.

But the waltz has its fill of being too indecent for society. Like grinding, a dance that involves rubbing genitals on a partner's buttocks, many people of its history objected to that and banned it.

So why was the waltz's history so tumultuous thanks to indecency, even several years past its heyday?

Origins and Early Controversy

The waltz developed from dances previously danced in courts or peasant parties. As early as the mid to late 16th century, dancers danced close-position dances in courts. Kunz Haas described them as the immoral "Weller or Spinner, whatever they call it." In 17th century Vienna, ladies performed a similar dance with gliding steps to triple time.

In France, lower-class people danced a turning dance called the Volta, where the woman leads the man in a close embrace. It became so popular in royal courts that Louis XIII banned it outright.

Other contributors to the waltz's development were folk dances. When the laendler came to the suburbs of royal cities in Germany and Vienna, the dance appealed to bored nobles in servant balls. In 1750, peasants in Bavaria, Tyrol, and Styria danced a turning dance called the Walzer, a triple-time dance.

Rise of the Controversy

Not everyone was thrilled by the allure and swirls of the waltz. Dancing masters complained how easy it was to dance and how dizzy their pupils feel when doing it.

But the biggest sources of bashing came from moralists - clergy, poets, and others who want decency. Many Catholic communities, even dioceses, barred couples from dancing so close in triple time when it became popular during the late 18th century and became widespread.


Regency Era Dirty Dancing

Many people with strong morals objected to the waltz because of its closed positions. (Although that man is waltzing, he's actually holding the lady's hands.)
Many people with strong morals objected to the waltz because of its closed positions. (Although that man is waltzing, he's actually holding the lady's hands.)

In Britain, the inception of the waltz from those Austrians and Germans shocked many moralists. Even poet Lord Byron was not pleased with the dance. He wrote in his poem about the closed positions involved in the dance:

But ye --- who never felt a single thought
For what our morals are to be, or ought;
Who wisely wish the charms you view to reap
Say --- would you make those beauties quite so cheap?

Hot from the hands promiscuously applied,
Round the slight waist, or down the glowing side,
Where were the rapture then to clasp the form
From this lewd grasp and lawless contact warm?

Simply put, it was the "freak dance" of the Regency Era because of the overly sexual moves and positions. Anglican bishops outlawed their parishioners from dancing the dance.

Even in America

The controversy even came to America, notably in California. (Boston had that problem with close embraces of the dance too.) There, the Salesian Fathers considered it indecent, and banned it when the dance came to the state. In 1834, they lifted the ban and people started adopting it and creating their own form: the Spanish waltz.


Some Ire Remained

The dance caught on with less moral panic in the Victorian Era. Queen Victoria became a fan of the dance and danced it with skill. Some Strauss family members wrote music for it, most notably those of Johann I and his sons.

Despite society's adaptations, some objection to the waltz remained. One etiquette manual, Donald Walker’s Exercises for Ladies, stated that women would risk back injuries and dizziness because of the excessive swirling. Other books on good manners also discouraged people from dancing that until about 1844, when the polka reached its zenith and became acceptable in dance gatherings.

Waltz History Repeated Itself in the 2000s

The waltz's history chronicled from a dance that was akin to sexual impulses to the ballroom dance that can be safely performed. But some Chinese allowed the times when moralists of days gone by bashed it for being a too scandalous dance repeat themselves in 2007.

So why did China let the ugly head of waltz-outlawing and controversy out of the water again? Well, it started when the education ministry unveiled a new scheme that would combat the growth of childhood obesity: compulsory dancing. That type of ballroom dancing became the primary focus with dances tailored to various grades (see table for dances).

School Dances in China by Grade Level

Elementary
Middle
High
Good Friends
Youth Melody
The Waltz
Sunny Campus
The Yangge Dance
The Young
Little White Boat
 
 
Originally proposed in 2007

Regency Era Repeated in 2007 China

Like those who denounced the waltz in the early 1800's, teachers in China also blamed waist-holding and close dancing for "puppy love."
Like those who denounced the waltz in the early 1800's, teachers in China also blamed waist-holding and close dancing for "puppy love."

Installing the new dances into the physical education curricula can cause a host of other problems. One teacher noted as many moralists noted in the 1800's that it involved the dreaded closed positions, which can lead to falling in love too early in life:

The dance plan makes no sense. Running and calisthenics are a more effective way to lose weight. Our school needs to hire a special teacher to teach dancing and it will take up a lot of time. Most importantly, letting students waltz will create hotbeds of adolescent love. That is not good. Schools work very hard to prevent students from falling in love too early.

Besides burning less calories than kung fu, the dance was merely extracurricular. One critic said, “Making students dance - under duress - is not an essential part of education, it simply creates new burdens for students.”


Revisions Had A Few Moral Kinks

To curtail "puppy love" from the way it's danced, the education ministry revised the dance steps. They allowed children to dance in fours or switch partners during durations of dances, pretty much like the cotillions of old.

But the revised scheme did not sit well with one middle school. They had to opt out of it because a dance ended with girls falling into their boy partners' arms.

Although the waltz suffered bad times thanks to morals against it, it became a popular dance for the ballroom. Just think how dull it would be without both the good and bad times of its development!

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