Wonderings on the Waltz

Good morning and welcome back to my life! Today I’d like to explore the quirks of one of the better-known ballroom dances and the many hats–er, shoes–it wears.

If you ask me “what is waltz?” there are four equally valid answers to give–though in reality I’m not likely to explain all of them in person. They are as follows, in the order in which I learned of their existence:

1. Music in 3/4 time.

2. A family of ballet steps including the balancé  and ‘turning waltz step’.

3. Ballroom Slow Waltz, either Smooth or Standard

4. Ballroom Viennese Waltz, again either Smooth or Standard

So number one should be fairly obvious. Any piece of music that is listed as in 3/4 time can be considered as in ‘waltz time’, even if the resulting music isn’t particularly dance-able. Granted there are exceptions, and not all pieces written in 3/4 time actually sound like it. Sometimes composers mess with the rhythms to force 2/3, 6/8, or even 4/4 to appear waltz-like to the confuséd listener–see “Fantasy on the Dargasson” by Holst for a well-known wind ensemble example.

The fun begins when we compare numbers two, three, and four.

Knowing multiple dance styles is a lot like speaking several languages. Ones understanding of the world and the relationships therein is deepened and made richer by the connections drawn between them. On the surface there is very little in common between the balancé or ‘turning waltz step’ in ballet and the ballroom Slow Waltz–the former can be done side-to-side, turning, traveling, and with any number of arm positions, whereas the latter travels around the floor, rising and falling and sweeping while attached to another person. What do these two steps have in common?


  ‘Huh?’ you say.

Well, in both slow Waltz and the balancé, count ‘2’ of the 3 is the highest, body-position-wise. In ballet this is achieved with a relevée on count two on whichever foot happens to be in back. In Ballroom Waltz “rise and fall” is a big deal–an idea that is simple, conceptually, but often fiendishly difficult to perfect. In the most basic terms, it is achieved through a combination of foot, knee, and body lift and stretch in conjunction with the partner. It’s this similarity that has me suspecting the two styles at the very least share a common ancestor.

Now Viennese Waltz is where things differ further. V-Waltz is essentially twice the speed of Slow Waltz and features no rise and fall, instead directing the dancer to speed around the floor like a top, keeping the majority of the momentum linear instead of ‘swoopy’. The overall ‘look’ is nothing like the ballet balancé–but the funny thing is this: All the famous ballet waltzes are actually Viennese Waltz tempo–at least all of Tchaikovsky’s are. Now I don’t claim to be an expert in dance history, but Viennese originated in Austria and Germany, while Ballet hails from France, Italy, and Russia, primarily. It is my hunch that modern Viennese is actually more a product of 20th century social dancing in Europe than its folk 16th century roots, which in my mind explains how the grand waltzes in “The Nutcracker”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Cinderella” share naught but the tempo with my beloved V-Waltz.

I hope you have enjoyed climbing through the tangled web that is the Waltz. I encourage anyone and everyone to learn both Slow Waltz and Viennese–the former for the control and beauty, the latter for the pure gleeful speed.

(Though I have to admit, the recent realization that sometimes ballet dancers do balancé in 4/4 time by changing the tempo grates on my sensibilities. Yes, go ahead and cringe. It happens.)

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