From Congress of Vienna to the dance halls of Buenos Aires

From Congress of Vienna to the dance halls of Buenos Aires

I was at a party this weekend given by a tango friend. Some of the people there had vast experience of lots of different dance forms, so the conversation turned to dance history. I was talking to somebody who was very into 18th and 19th century dance and he was telling me how the waltz arrived in England. He mentioned the importance of Lady Jersey who was the queen of Georgian Society in the early 19th century.

I’m fascinated by the history of the waltz. It intersects my interest in the Napoleonic era because it was widely popularised by the social activities surrounding the Congress of Vienna. (See my blog post: Partying at the Congress of Vienna.) I decided to spend a little while online to see what I could find out about Lady Jersey and the waltz.

The most useful material I found was a paper by Cheryl A. Wilson, “The Arrival of the Waltz in England, 1812”. This, as suggested in the title, puts the arrival of the waltz a little earlier than the Congress of Vienna. The waltz had started life as a folk dance in Eastern Europe, but by the 19th century it was a sophisticated ballroom dance, albeit one that was not practised in England. This changed when it was introduced into Almack’s Assembly Rooms. Almack’s was the most exclusive social club in London. Almack’s is where Lady Jersey came in. She was one of the patronesses of Almack’s and a leader of the ton, the group of socially well-connected men and women who formed the pinnacle of Society in the Regency. So influential was Lady Jersey that she was often referred to as “Queen Sarah”.

The fact that Queen Sarah had supported the introduction of the waltz meant it was here to stay, but at first it was regarded with suspicion by many people. It was the first ‘close dance’ to be popularised in England. Prior to the waltz, most social dancing involved a line of men facing a line of women with their only contact being to hold hands during some of the intricate patterns of the dance. The intimate hold of the waltz was seen as full of moral hazard. Byron (ironically, given his reputation) wrote:

Waltz—Waltz—alone both legs and arms demands,
Liberal of feet—and lavish of her hands;
Hands which may freely range in public sight,
Where ne’er before—but—pray ‘put out the light.’
Methinks the glare of yonder chandelier
Shines much too far—or I am much too near;
And true, though strange—Waltz whispers this remark;
‘My slippery steps are safest in the dark!’ 

The Waltz: Byron

The waltz might well have deserved at least some of its reputation. It was not unknown for corners of the ballroom to be left in shadow and a tightly laced woman whirled rapidly into a turn might feel (or could reasonably feign feeling) dizzy enough to fall into her partner’s arms. There were even scandalous suggestions of osculatory activity in the shadows.

After the Congress of Vienna where it was clear that the  crowned heads of Europe and their courts were happy to indulge, waltzing became more respectable. Most dance historians pinpoint its inclusion in the 1816 Regent’s Fête at Carlton House as the moment when the waltz became truly integrated into London society. While the waltz was gracing fashionable ballrooms, the folk version continued to be popular as a dance amongst the working poor of Central and Eastern Europe. As Argentina opened up to European immigration, many of those who emigrated to South America took their waltz music with them. This, of course, is where, as a passionate tango enthusiast, my interest in the waltz comes in. By the mid-1800s the waltz of Europe had morphed in Argentina into a specifically South American variant – the Vals Criollo. As tango developed later in the century, tango musicians incorporated the Vals Criollo into their repertoire and by 1910, some composers wrote tango compositions in 3/4 time, giving birth to the Tango Vals. The Tango Vals is a faster-paced version of the Viennese waltz, with a lot of turns and quick changes of direction that leave the dancers breathless. This is the waltz I love. And here I am dancing a very restrained tango vals with my beloved at our Ruby Wedding.

James Burke and the Waltz

Burke only gets to dance the waltz once in the books. It’s 1815 and he is in Brussels at the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball on the eve of Waterloo.

They edged their way through the crowd and found space on the dance floor. To Lily’s delight, they were playing a cotillion. Burke suspected that she had their hostess to thank for that. The Duchess of Richmond was quite old-fashioned in her tastes and had probably insisted on some more traditional English dances. The cotillion was soon over, though, and it was back to quadrilles. Burke remembered the quadrilles that had played the first time he had met Lily. He could hardly believe he had not that much cared for her then. Now she seemed the most important thing in his life.

Another cotillion and then, as if to make up for such unfashionable music, the band started a waltz. Burke, like every other man in the place, had practiced the steps so that if he ever found a girl daring enough to dance it, he would not be found wanting. He was gratified to discover that Lily had obviously practiced it as well. The two of them whirled around the room until the music stopped, their cheeks red with excitement, and half dizzy from turning so enthusiastically.

Burke at Waterloo

Image at the top of the page is La Walse by James Gillray, 1810