The Waltz, 1802

A little while ago, I encountered an early illustration of the waltz that was new to me. It may be well known to experts in the dancing of the 1800s, but I hadn’t seen it before. Nor could I find it in any of the general accounts of this dance I was able to access. It is an acquatint from Journal of a Party of Pleasure to Paris in the Month of August 1802, published in London the same year.

Waltz 1802

‘La Valse’ from Journal of a Party of Pleasure to Paris (1802).

It accompanies what is said to be the first known description of the waltz.

‘At night we went to Tivoli, … Every kind of diversion was going forward; … in the midst of the whole, dancing, on a very large floored space. But the dance was of so curious a nature that I must describe it. It is called a Valse; and it was there danced by about two hundred couple, to a tune extremely slow, each couple turning each other round and round, till they have completed the circle of the whole platform, in the manner of the sketch here presented. But this can only give a faint idea of it; the attitudes of the women are tasteful and sportive, to say no more of them; but of the men I can say nothing, they were so dirty and vulgar they only excited disgust. This dance, though very amusing to the lookers on, and doubtless to the performers, will, I think, never become the fashion in England.’

The Journal is anonymous, but the author has been identified as Sir John Dean Paul (1775-1852) an English neo-classical artist. The Tivoli gardens in Paris were named after those of the Villa d’Este near Rome and were fashionable as an amusement park from the 1790s to the 1840s. 1802 was the year of the Treaty of Amiens, which briefly halted the wars between France and Great Britain and allowed the English to visit Paris.

Waltz music dates back to the 1750s, but the dance seems to have emerged into polite society around 1800. I have elsewhere mentioned the similarity of the basic waltz step to the pas de menuet. Another possible influence on the waltz was the couple allemande, fashionable in the 1770s and 1780s. The hold of the fourth couple in the illustration resembles one of the figures depicted in Dubois’s Principes d’Allemande (undated, but perhaps published in the 1770s). The hold of the third couple appears in a later source, 16 Divisions of Waltzing by the English dancing master G.M.S. Chivers, published around 1822. The first of the four couples use a hold that might also relate to the couple allemande, although it does not exactly correspond to any of those depicted in the handful of treatises that explain this dance. The second couple look more like they are swinging one another around in a modern country dance manner. I haven’t come across anything that resembles it.

None of the couples look like they are dancing slowly. Was the music ‘extremely slow’ so that they could dance in double time? In this early version, the waltz looks as if it might indeed have been as shocking as onlookers claimed.

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