Shall We Dance?

So, I’ve been a bit crazed the last few days with a Looming Deadline (3 weeks away, ack!) plus a weekend full of holidays and parties (Mother’s Day, graduations, etc) and I had no idea what to write about today. So I did a search to find out what sorts of fun things happened on this day in history. I discovered that Italian ballerina Fanny Cerrito was born on this day in 1817 (she was a prima ballerina at La Scala and one of the pioneers of dancing en pointe. She also lived a very long life, until 1909, and was able to see the Ballet Russes perform). I also found a factoid that said the waltz was introduced in England on this day in 1812. I could find no confirmation of this, which seems a bit suspect. How could they know what day that happened?? And it seems like it would have been a bit earlier, though I’m not sure. Still, it’s fun.

I’ve been thinking about dancing a lot lately. I started a new part-time job, teaching a ballet class for 5-year-olds on Saturdays. Right now I’m helping them get ready for their recital in June (it’s an “Alice in Wonderland” theme, and this class is going to play the pack of cards in little white tutus printed with card faces. SO Cute!), but then I’ll teach a smaller class for the summer, for students who are “more serious” and don’t want to lose a couple months of lessons. So far so good. The first day I thought those 5-year-olds were going to kick my butt–I have never seen so much energy in one room before, all bundled up in adorable black leotards, pink slippers, and hairbows. They’re extremely enthusiastic in their plie-ing and jete-ing and can do a mean fifth position. But we’ve come to an understanding now, and I’m having lots of fun with my tiny Pavlovas. We may have to have a Regency “waltzing party”!

And I pulled a few books off the shelf to try and find more about the history of the waltz. (Gerald Jonas, Dancing; Richard Stephenson, The Complete Book of Ballroom Dancing; and Boyd Hilton, A Mad Bad and Dangerous People: England 1783-1846 were very helpful). It seems Montaigne wrote in 1580 of a dance he saw in Augsburg where the dancers held each other so closely their faces touched, and in the same period a man named Kunz Haas wrote “Now they are dancing the godless Weller or Spinner, whatever they call it”–seemingly a vigorous peasant dance.

By the late 17th century, ladies at the royal Court in Vienna were spun around the room to the tune of a 2-beat measure, which grew into the 3/4 time of the so-called Nach Tanz (“after dance”) and moved with a gliding step. Meanwhile the peasants enjoyed dancing something called a Walzer, which came to notice around 1750. Another country dance, the Landler (which can be seen in The Sound of Music!) spread from the countryside of Austria and Bavaria and into the towns and cities. The hopping motion of the Landler developed into a graceful sliding step, with a gliding rotation replacing the stamping rotation of the folk dance. It was said that while the nobility at Court still mostly danced their staid minuets, many of them were sneaking off to dance at their servants’ parties! (18th century Dirty Dancing??)

In the 1770s, a visitor to Vienna named Don Curzio wrote, “The people were dancing mad! The ladies of Vienna are particularly celebrated for their grace and movements of waltzing of which they never tire.” Deeply shocking when first introduced (the couples faced each other! And touched more than just a hand!), the waltz was all the fashion in Vienna by the 1780s and spread across Europe. In England, it was still considered “riotous and indecent” in 1825! (It’s a good thing they never went to a tango party!). Young ladies did not waltz without express permission. The scandalous Caro Lamb was especially fond of having “waltzing parties” in her drawing room, which should tell us something. But the waltz is now the precursor to many of the ballroom dances we know today (like quickstep, foxtrot, etc). Of course, the waltz of the early 19th century looked quite different from what we see on Dancing With the Stars (as you can see from the YouTube video below, which I so much enjoyed watching!)

What are your favorite dances (or dancers)?? Any good dance recital stories? (It seems when I was about 3 and in my very first performance, I brought the ballet to a screeching halt by sitting down onstage in my tutu to examine some confetti. I have no memory of this and deny it). What are you up to this Tuesday?

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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