When we think about dancing today, at parties, or ‘dances’ of any kind, we tend to most often think of the sort of very free form dancing that originated in the 1960s and has become most common – where there may, or may not, be a pattern to the dance, and everyone sort of tumbles about the dance floor,
staying vaguely with whoever they are dancing with.
If we think of something more than that, then we think about more formal ballroom dancing, or maybe things like Jive or Swing, or Latin American dances. All of which usually involve being in close contact with your partner, all the way through the dance.
Yet, you may have noticed that how dancing gets described, in the better, more historically accurate regency books, is nothing like that. There are many books that talk about the waltz as being ‘scandalous’ – has that puzzled you? Have you wondered why? Well, that’s what today’s trivia is about.
Let’s start with the reason that the waltz was scandalous, and then move on to what the other dances they did were like. The waltz was introduced to England from the continent around 1810 (opinions on exact dates vary). The form of the waltz danced then was not what we call a waltz today (the simple ‘box shaped pattern of three steps that we get taught and which we see at weddings etc), but what we now call the ‘Viennese Waltz’, although the regency version was danced more slowly than we dance this today. It is a slightly more complex version of the dance than the basic waltz most common now, in which the dancers are rotating all the time, and can only change direction of rotation using a specific set of extra steps. (its a dance that makes it easy to get very dizzy!) (Note – I used to do medals grade ballroom dancing, as well as having done lots of historical recreation – its amazing what we learn in life that becomes useful in completely different ways later!)
It was regarded as scandalous because to dance it, especially if the ladies gown was rather long and easily tripped on, without falling over, the gentleman had to have a firm hold on the Lady, who had to be, therefore, scandalously close to his body, front to front. The theory was that there should still be at least 12 inches between them – but, let me assure you, doing a Viennese waltz When you are that far apart is almost impossible! So, naturally, people danced closer together – which led to scandalous body contact, whisperings in ears, the chance for the gentleman to move his right hand rather further down the lady’s back than was strictly good form for the dance, but which allowed him to tough parts of her that he could never hope to touch otherwise!
So – what were the other dances like, if a waltz in close contact was so shocking? Other dances of the time came from two different heritages. One was the very formal court dances which had been around, and evolving, for centuries – dances like the minuet (which most people have heard of). The other was what are called ‘country dances’, like the cotillion – these are also, like the court dances, pattern dances, where there is a lot of progression, stepping around your partner, being passed up and down a line of partners etc etc, but, in the country dances, things tended to be a lot more energetic and ‘bouncy’ in style (which could also lead to wardrobe malfunctions and torn flounces on hems etc.) These dances rarely had the partners do more than touch hands, to pass around each other, or from one partner to another – hence they were less scandalous.
Caricature of longways dance by Rowlandson, second half of 1790s
There is a good overview in this wikipedia article –
So – next time you read a regency story, and the author talks about dancing, stop and think – is what they are saying accurate? or has their unconscious modern set of assumptions snuck in and affected what they have written?