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.

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.”

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