This Day In History: The Debut Of A Shocking And Scandalous New Dance

By Karen Harris

Wilhelm Gause (1853-1916), Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) at the Annual Viennese Ball. (DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

In 1812, one of history's most scandalous dances made its debut in London society. No, not the Charleston, the Twist, or the Twerk--we're talking about none other than the steps you probably performed as your first dance at your wedding, the waltz.

Origins Of The Waltz

The waltz started as a type of dance that was popular among European peasants in Austria and Bavaria as early as the 16th century, accompanied by lively music, often performed on fiddles, with a 3/4 beat. As word got around that the lower classes threw better parties, young noblemen began sneaking off to waltz with peasants, and musicians from Vienna (where people are less prudish) picked up the 3/4 tempo of the folk tunes. Soon, aristocrats had no choice but to accept the style of dance.

"Specimens of Waltzing," 1817. (New York Public Library)

The Dance Sensation Sweeping The ... Continent

The Viennese waltz made its way to France in the late 1700s and early 1800s when Napoleon's soldiers brought the dance back home with them, then skipped across the English Channel on May 11, 1812, shocking everyone from the crown to the courtesans. At that time in England, dance partners rarely touched, usually moving slowly side by side, and if they did, the gloves they wore ensured no skin-to-skin contact.

Young couples waltzing. (Wellcome Collection)

When waltzing, however, couples are much closer, with their hands on each other's waists and shoulders. Waltzing couples also often didn't wear gloves, and the rhythmic one-two-three steps of the dance often caused a lady's bosom to jiggle. As such, it was known as the "forbidden dance" in England, though as the British upper crust denounced it, they also found themselves drawn to it. Despite the outrage, folks kept on waltzing, and once the shock value wore off, it ushered in a new era of ballroom dancing. These days, the waltz is considered as stuffy as a cummerbund.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.