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Waltzers twirl at the open-air Parisian dance venue Bal Mabille in a mid-19th-century painting by Charles Vernier.

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The Elegant Waltz Was Once Vienna’s Forbidden Dance

A holiday highlight in The Nutcracker Suite, the waltz had surprisingly scandalous origins in the 18th century.

The sounds of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's “Waltz of the Flowers” have become a holiday standard, but this family favorite began as a dance of rebellion, embraced by teens and sneered at by parents. When the dance first whirled through the ballrooms of Vienna, it caused an outrage and marked a decisive shift in European social customs.

The dance’s origins are probably humble. Its name comes from walzen— “to turn” in German—and may have developed out of the folk music of Austria’s western Tyrol region (although some authors associate its choreography with the volta, a 16th-century couples dance). Whatever its exact origin, by the late 1700s the waltz spread throughout Europe. The dance craze was particularly popular among young people from the wealthy middle classes, the perfect expression of a new, confident bourgeoisie, who were discarding the aristocratic customs of their elders.

Too Close for Comfort

The waltz was a far cry from the precise choreography of a dance like the minuet, which generally kept dancers at arms’ length from each other. The waltz allowed partners to be close and place their arms around one another as they spun around the floor. A scene from the 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, by J. W. von Goethe, describes a ball that begins with stuffy minuets until a new tune is struck: “When the waltz commenced, and the dancers whirled around each other in the giddy maze . . . Never did I dance more lightly. I felt myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying, with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object.”

Conservative critics were outraged. They considered it to be too tactile. Until then, formal dancers might, at the very most, hold hands while performing complex choreography. In 1818 Madame de Genlis, a governess of the briefly restored French royal family, said that the waltz would corrupt any honest young woman who performed it: “A young woman, lightly dressed, throws herself into the arms of a young man,” she wrote. “He presses her to his chest and conquers her with such impetuosity that she soon feels her heart beat violently as her head giddily swims! That is what they call waltzing!” In 1833 a British manual of good manners recommended only married women should dance it, as it was too immoral for the unwed.

Strictly Ballroom

None of this outcry prevented the waltz from spreading. Its popularity led to the creation of a new kind of establishment: the public dance hall. In 1760 a Venetian opera singer, Teresa Cornelys, opened one of the first in Europe, Carlisle House in London, England. Run as an exclusive club, its guests could dine, play cards, listen to music, and, of course, dance.

Other European capitals soon followed suit. At the epicenter of the waltz, Vienna’s Apollo Hall had five ballrooms in the early 1800s. Young people enthusiastically embraced the new fashion, fueling a craze that lasted for decades. In the spring of 1832, for example, it is estimated that half the city’s population attended thousands of balls.

The rising popularity of the dance inspired many Austrian composers such as Johann Strauss the Elder (1804-1849), Joseph Lanner (1801-1843), and Johann Strauss the Younger (1825-1899). The works composed by the latter included the most iconic of the Viennese waltzes: “The Blue Danube,” whose smooth strains, originally written for a men’s chorus, were composed in 1867.

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The original score of “The Blue Danube” pictured above, was written in 1867 by Johann Strauss the Younger.

These composers transformed a simple country dance into works full of verve, in turn inspiring other composers, such as Frédéric Chopin. In Russia, Pyotr Tchaikovsky used the dance in some of his ballets, such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and, now most famously, The Nutcracker Suite.

The waltz’s popularity spread to the United States, especially following the Civil War. American versions of the dance sprang up, such as the Boston Waltz, or Boston Dip. The craze would fade in the early 20th century because of the dance’s Germanic associations. Both in Europe and America, flushed dancers twirled their way into the 20th century to the joyful beat of three-quarter time.