The waltz is considered by young people nowadays to be old-fashioned, but did you know it was once known as 'The Forbidden Dance'?
In the 18th century, dancing was very much a communal activity. Dancers didn’t just dance with a partner, but in two lines, so that partners faced each other and moved back and forth, and never touched apart from holding hands. They danced with each of the opposite line, in a stately, rigid manner.
Then the unthinkable happened. People in Vienna started to dance the waltz, in which they faced each other in an embrace, with the man holding the woman’s right hand in his left, and with his right arm around her. Waltz is the German for ‘turn’ because each series of movements is a turning step and a close. The dance evolved from Austrian peasant dances and was strongly disapproved of by church leaders and officials.
Young people loved it however, and the waltz craze spread across Europe during the 1830s. When it arrived in England, it was denounced. Lord Byron wrote a furious letter, in which he decried the anti-social nature of the dance, with the couple “like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin”. However, he wrote it anonymously and later disowned it. The waltz was finally accepted.
The second couple dance to use this hold was the polka, a dance apparently invented by a Czech peasant girl. Polka is Czech for ‘half-step’, referring to the rapid shift from one foot to the other. It was introduced to England in 1843 and was an instant hit.
The next dance to use the embrace position was the tango. It comes from Argentina, where it had long been known in the working-class port neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. In 1912 it was introduced to Europe by Argentinian dancers and musicians and became wildly popular. Paris was swept away by the tango craze, followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals.
It’s ironic that ballroom dancing was considered to be only for the upper classes, while the working classes were left to their folk dancing. Yet each one of these dances above originated from peasant dances.