Thinking About: Dances, Dancing and History

I recently began to learn the Viennese waltz. I am a newcomer to ballroom dance, but it seems very different to the modern ballroom waltz. I couldn’t help wondering about its history. I have been told it is earlier than its modern counterpart, but how far back does it go? How does it relate to the early 19th-century waltz I was dancing just a few weeks ago?

The early 19th-century waltz raised another question. How does it relate to the minuet? The waltz step we used seemed to share the rhythmic characteristics of the French minuet step (called ‘One and a Fleuret’ by the dancing master Kellom Tomlinson). The man steps onto his left foot and does a quarter-turn pirouette in the first bar, followed by three steps in the next bar (the waltz, like the minuet, is in 3 / 4). The woman does the opposite. Of course, the couple revolve in a clockwise direction, while travelling anti-clockwise around the ballroom, quite unlike the minuet with its serene floor patterns and its fixed front. This waltz was in a hold which was obviously moving towards the modern ballroom hold. The waltzes (French, sauteuse, jetté-sauteuse and German) described by Thomas Wilson in his 1816 treatise seem very different both in steps and hold. So what was going on? How was the waltz developing and changing during the 19th century? Where does the Viennese waltz fit in?

I’ve also been struggling with Argentine tango. At the workshop I went to recently, we were taught a small number of basic steps, and told that these were all we needed to dance tango – everything else was derived from them. My mind immediately flew both to baroque dance and to modern ballroom and Latin. Don’t they all rest on just a few basic steps, which can be joined together, varied and decorated in all sorts of ways to produce an extensive and rich vocabulary of movements? Modern ballroom and Latin dances, as well as Argentine tango, are social dance forms intended for the ballroom, and all are improvisational – like the 18th-century minuet. Modern dances for the stage, or for competitions, have fixed routines – just like the baroque ballroom and theatrical choreographies.

Thinking about the different ballroom and Latin dances, with their various shared vocabularies of steps and their very different musical and stylistic qualities, my mind jumped again to baroque dance and its several dance types. These also share the same steps but are otherwise distinct, musically at least. I am wondering whether being able to grasp the differences between the modern waltz, the foxtrot and the quickstep, and between the rumba and the cha-cha, might help me as I try to differentiate the saraband, the loure, the bourée and rigaudon? The differences between all these dances might seem obvious (at least to the initiated), but they can be hard to interpret in performance unless one is an expert.

So, is all this dancing divisible into ancient and modern, where never the twain shall meet, or is it all actually variations on a shared theme?



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