Waltz: Definition & History

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Although thought of by many as a stodgy ballroom dance, the Waltz was considered downright indecent. Learn more about this classic dance and the rhythm behind it that has inspired musicians as diverse as classical composers and Bruno Mars.

What is a Waltz?

Technically speaking, a waltz is a closed position dance to be performed in triple time. In layman's terms, this means that the partners both hold and face each other while dancing to a rhythm of hard-soft-soft-hard-soft-soft. Originally introduced as a ballroom dance, the catchy rhythm, combined with the fact that the partners were allowed to be so close to each other, made the waltz popular within other styles.

Diagram demonstrating the waltz
Diagram demonstrating the waltz

As a result, numerous waltzes exist today. From the original Vienna waltz, itself having a fast tempo, other styles emerged, namely the International waltz and the American waltz, both of which are more similar to what many in the United States imagine when thinking of a waltz.

Despite the style, the waltz remains today what it was upon its introduction: a socially respectable way to have close physical contact with someone of the opposite sex.

History of the Waltz

While traditional Central European dance had been incorporating much of the closeness that would make the waltz famous for hundreds of years, the man who would eventually write some of the greatest music for these dances was Johann Strauss, an Austrian who lived in Vienna during the very end of the 18th century.

The Waltz as portrayed by Renoir
Waltz in Closed Position

Given the provocative nature of the dance, it is little surprise that it became very fashionable among those looking for a spouse and that it soon spread across Europe. Young officers in the British Army introduced it to the ballrooms of London following the Napoleonic Wars (they learned the dance in France and Austria between battles with the French). To the east, in Russia, the great composer Tchaikovsky wrote several waltzes, many of which were introduced to the English-speaking world by none other than the Russian ambassador's wife. As such, the waltz was not only provocative, but it was also the epitome of class.

The Waltz Since Its Introduction

The style of dancing made permissible by the waltz influenced several other dances and would be truly transformative on the world of ballroom dancing. Large group dances became old-fashioned, as people gravitated to an option that would allow more intimacy. This intimacy of two partners in each other's embrace can be seen today throughout ballroom dancing and any other style that requires a partner.

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