Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 2: The Forbidden Dance, The Waltz

Welcome to my second post on Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.

"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."

"Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance."

--- Sir William Lucas and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

Oh, the scandal! Some strange foreign dance has invaded your country. It's bad enough that it's foreign, but it is also scandalous, indecent, and riotous. People are practically kissing when they dance! The young people in particular are very vulnerable to this insidious attack upon morality.

A decade into the 21st century, we often forget (or simply find quaint) that the line between acceptability and decadence is often quite subjective. During the British Regency, dancing, despite Mr. Darcy's complaints notwithstanding, was an acceptable activity. Anyone who has ever seen a film adaptation of almost any film set during the Regency that doesn't focus on the Napoleonic Wars probably witnessed a dance scene. The key, though, was people  performing only "acceptable" dances.

English Country Dancing, a type of contradancing (which basically describes dances where couples dance in opposing lines), was still popular though starting to fade somewhat in popularity. Most people have probably seen it depicted something like this (5 minute video) where it is calm and stately. The general historical evidence suggests the actual dances were actually rather lively in contrast to the more modern sedate forms.

Other popular forms included precursors to traditional square dancing such as the quadrille and cotillion. Despite the connotative baggage the term square dancing is currently associated with, originally a square dance just meant a dance where various couples danced in a roughly square formation.

Lively or stately, these various dances were a major aspect of the social scene, especially among the elites and the upwardly mobile. Today, though, I don't want to spend a huge amount of time talking about the complete history of Regency dance. I'll revisit some of the other dances in the future.

Instead, I want to talk about the shocking import that I alluded to in my first paragraph--the waltz. Yes, the waltz, not exactly a dance one would normally find questionable. Performed in triple time and with its requisite closed position (where the dancers were not only holding each other continuous, but doing often mere inches away from each other), the dance was distinct from the square dance precursors and line dances.

The waltz grew from other gliding dances of the 16th and 17th century. Most of its development took place in Austria and Bavaria. By 1780, it had become relatively popular in Vienna and by 1800 had spread to Paris. The British, however, resisted the dance with more force than those on the Continent. There's some contradictory information out there on when, exactly, it finally broke through, but generally many dance historians suggest 1810 or 1812 as dates. Arrival,however, was not the same thing as acceptance. 

In 1816, the always fun-loving Prince Regent held a ball that included the controversial dance. The Times was not at all pleased (emphasis mine):

"We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last ... it is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion." 

Residual resistance would linger for the next several decades in England, but by 1819 the dance had generally attained acceptance among most segments of society. The end of the Georgian era would all but crush the final anti-Waltzers. None other than Queen Victoria herself, not a woman normally associated with indecency or moral turpitude by British conservatives, was fond of dancing the waltz.

So next time you are feeling scandalous and wish to be shocking and indecent by the standards of Regency England, go find yourself a ballroom.

I haven't spent a lot of time describing the waltz in detail. Instead, I think it would be best if you just watched it: 


J. R. Tomlin said...

They are not waltzing in that video.

J.A. Beard said...

Oops, that's what I get for not going with my earlier one.

Basically, I found a bunch with modern videos, got tired and I just grabbed the first thing with costumes after that without vetting it. Fixed.

Thanks for catching that. I don't normally do videos, so this will teach me to be more thorough. :)