Waltzing Through 1814

The London Times (July 1816)

“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. This is a circumstance which ought not to be passed over in silence. National morals depend on national habits: and it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure of the bodies, in their dance, to see that is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which have 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 upon the respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion…

We owe a due reference to superiors in rank, but we owe a higher duty to morality. We know not how it happened (probably by recommendation of some worthless and ignorant French dancing master) that so indecent a dance has now for the first time been exhibited at the English Court; but the novelty is one deserving of severe reprobation, and we trust it will never be tolerated in any moral English society”

It is hard to believe that this article from the 1816 London Times is referring to the romantic, sweeping waltz that we know today. Waltz compositions existed in Regency England prior to the popularisation of the dance but followed a 2/4 rhythm rather than a 3/4 and the dancing involved more leaping and skipping than the graceful and stately movements we often imagine. The ‘closed waltz’ came into being (in England) around 1810 but just because it was there did not mean it was acceptable for higher bred individuals to dance it. When dancing, couples did not ’embrace’ one another. There was strictly no ‘intertwining of limbs’ or ‘compressure of bodies’ and couples were not to form a singular unit on the ballroom dancefloor.

Steps of the Regency Waltz from Thomas Wilson's Dance Manual

Steps of the Regency Waltz from Thomas Wilson’s Dance Manual

The closed waltz may have crept into some dancing halls and clubs by 1814 but it was not likely accepted into higher society before it was danced at the English Court. And it is said that debutantes would have needed permission from a parent or chaperone if it was danced at all. Reading the above excerpt from The London Times allows us to imagine the censorious glances that dancing the closed waltz at a prestigious event would invite.

In my novel, Becoming Lady Beth, Beth attempts to dance the waltz with Lord Robert Asherton at the Season’s opening ball. Being a modern day girl suddenly thrown back through time to 1814, it is the only dance she knows and she fails to realise the differences in our modern day waltz and the dance habits of her new peers. Her attempts to ‘embrace’ the young Earl at the Asherton Ball causes more than a raised eyebrow and illustrates the first of many mistakes our modern day heroine will make in this uptight society. Here is a little snippet of her mother’s reaction the morning after the ball, at breakfast:

Beth arranged her bounty around her with some glee. She poured herself a cup of tea, sniffed the contents, finding the familiar scent immediately comforting, then mouth salivating she prepared to tuck in.

            ‘I see your wanton behaviour is to continue into this morning, Elizabeth,’ her mother spoke. ‘Are you attempting to ignore what happened last night with the Earl? The shame you have brought upon your head? How we are to show our faces in company again, I’m sure I do not know.’ Her voice lost some of its strength towards the end of her speech and Beth felt terrible when she detected a catch in her mother’s throat. (BECOMING LADY BETH by Olivia Bright)

When researching the acceptance of the ‘closed’ waltz by the Beau Monde, Almacks is mentioned frequently. Almacks was a social club where both women and men of high social standing could while away the evenings. In 1814 it was considered ‘The Place’ to be seen. It was located somewhere along King’s Street, St. James in London.

Almacks Assembly Rooms: Social Club in London

Almacks Assembly Rooms: Social Club in London

Sometime between the 6th and 27th of June 1814, during the post-Napolean defeat celebration, Tsar Alexander came to England. He visited Almacks Assembly Rooms and it’s said that he danced the waltz there, thus introducing it to higher society. But although the waltz was deemed okay to dance by some, it was far from accepted immediately. It is very difficult to trace how quickly the ‘closed’ waltz progressed outwards from London but we know that it was occasionally danced in 1814 and from there it was likely that the dance slowly became more popular. Even though this was the case, it remained something that was associated with scandalous behaviour. Byron wrote a satirical poem about it.

Seductive Waltz!—though on thy native shore

Even Werter’s self proclaim’d thee half a whore;

Werter—to decent vice though much inclined,

Yet warm, not wanton; dazzled, but not blind—

Though gentle Genlis, in her strife with Stael,

Would ever proscribe thee from a Paris ball;

The fashion hails—from countesses to queens,

And maids and valets waltz behind the scenes;

Wide and more wide thy witching circle spreads,

And turns—if nothing else—at least our heads;

With thee even clumsy cits attempt to bounce,

And cockneys practise what they can’t pronounce.

Gods! How the glorious theme my strain exalts,

And rhyme finds partner rhyme in praise of “Waltz!”

Excerpt: The Waltz, Byron (1813)

When Beth finds herself no longer a girl of the noughties but an Earl’s daughter in 1814, the ‘closed waltz’ would have been known about and warned against. It would not have been an acceptable dance at the Asherton Ball and it definitely would not have been appropriate for a debutante. We can see this from Byron’s poem, where he describes how observers of the ‘closed waltz’ were dazzled by the shocking and wanton movements. The piece from the London Times, dated over two years later, prophesises a loss of national morality and warns parents against allowing their daughters to become exposed to this ‘deadly contagion’.

Here’s another little teaser from Becoming Lady Beth, where Beth discovers that waltzing in 1814 is viewed somewhat differently to waltzing in 2014.

All eyes were observing the strange scene. Lady Elizabeth was quite the most beautiful debutante present at the ball. When Lord Asherton had extended his hand to her, most of the circle had experienced the bitter taste of jealous resentment but most could not deny that they made a very handsome couple indeed. And then this! The most flagrant display of wanton behaviour. The Lady’s actions had set the viewers’ fans beating and their tongues wagging. (BECOMING LADY BETH by Olivia Bright)

BECOMING LADY BETH by Olivia Bright is to be published in December 2014. Keep a look out!



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