History, Literature


“But judge of my surprise, on arriving, to see poor dear Mrs. Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a huge hussar-looking gentleman I never set eyes on before, and his, to say truth, rather more than half round her waist, turning round, and round, and round, to a d—d see-saw up and down sort of tune, that reminded me of the “Black Joke” only more “affettuoso” till it made me quite giddy with wondering they were not so.”–George Gordon, Lord Byron

On May 11, 1812, a new dance known as the “German Waltz” was first introduced to the English society, and later, the Royal Court. The dancers held each other close, the steps were simple but energetic, and best performed by the young or at least young at heart. Regency society was horrified, “riotous” and “indecent” being but two words used to describe the phenomenon which became a national obsession as the waltz, which originated with a 13th-century German peasant dance, and was refined through the centuries in Vienna and Paris, took over the ballroom. On their way out were the formal, rigidly controlled, distanced and managed dances of the past; on its way in was the waltz, bringing daring, speed, passion, titillation, and (gasp) romance to the dance floor.

The waltz held primacy in the ballroom for over a hundred years, only being displaced after World War I by another dance craze, the Foxtrot. The Roaring Twenties followed, with one new dance after another gaining popularity, and from that point forward, the waltz, while still a staple in the ballroom dancing sweepstakes, is pretty much an also-ran in terms of popularity.

Many mentions are made of the waltz in literature of the Regency period, most notably in the novels of Jane Austen. But others weighed in, too. Among them was George Gordon, Lord Byron, who’s rather heavy-handed satire, “Waltz: An Apostrophic Hymn” is the source of today’s quote.

Byron’s character, like that of his eponymously-named hero, was that of a solitary, romantic, and melancholy young man brooding over wrongs he committed in the past but determined to act in noble ways to win favor and show himself as worthy of admiration, particularly from women. Alternately manic and depressive, vulnerable, and arrogant, of course, the girls were fascinated with him. (Me, I’ve long thought that Byron’s difficult and often antisocial personality owed as much to his regular diet of soda biscuits and potatoes steeped in vinegar as anything else: I suppose it might have stemmed from complex philosophical and intellectual roots and thinking deep thoughts, but, Occam’s razor, right?)

Byron also suffered under the constraints of a physical deformity, a club foot. This didn’t stop him from engaging in most of the pursuits he assayed throughout his life, but it did mean that one of them–dancing–was off-limits to him forever. And his bitterness at being denied the pleasure of holding a girl in his arms and whirling her around the dance floor comes through in his poem, and the “Note to the Publisher” from his pseudonym, Horace Horem. The poem was published anonymously, possibly because it spoke so slightingly of the very popular dance craze; more likely because criticism of the “German Waltz” was viewed in some circles as political, and directed towards the unpopular ruling House of Hanover.

In any event, it stands as the most public and lengthy denunciation of the dance from the era.

Here’s a short clip of waltzing, 1826 style. Prepare to be scandalized:

PS: Byron’s reference to the “Black Joke” in the quotation is to a bawdy song of the 18th century, one which is still popular today with Morris Dancers who do, on occasion, get pretty bawdy, shocking, riotous and indecent themselves. I’ve never seen Morris Dancers waltz, though. That might be a bridge too far.

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