The waltz as a carrier of a social revolution

What was revolutionary about the waltz was the ecstatic dynamic, which swept up all the dancers, without distinction of rank or status, in the slipstream of the rotating swirling mass.  The establishment of the waltz as a fashion dance at the courts of Europe demonstrated the increasingly fragile power-position of the traditional ruling classes.  Through the medium of dance, a social development which had yet to be fought for politically, was announced to the Bourgeoisie and the working class.  The waltz became the epitome of the revolution and the symbol of the bourgeois principle of "égalité". The waltz also required a close dance hold.  For the first time in the history of European social dancing, men and women stood face-to-face, close together, embraced each other and revolved, whirling continuously, into a trancelike state.  This dance-hold, denounced as immoral, signified a sexual revolution in dancing.

The extent of this cultural revolution can only be fully understood when contrasting the waltz with the minuet, the courtly fashion dance, which, before the triumphant arrival of the waltz, had dominated the world of dance since the 17th century.  The minuet with its highly complex, highly detailed figure and step sequences, had thoroughly accomplished the separation between society dancing and the more original folk dances, rendering the cultural schism between the social classes unbridgeable.

The essence of the minuet includes a strict formation of dancers who perform the artful dance in measured steps on exact geometric lines, but as well, an audience, toward whom the dance is directed.  Who entered the dance, in which order, was of utmost importance.  In the sophisticated order and abstract uniformity of the dancers, social status is crucial for determining their place in the dance; the hierarchical order of society is demonstrated in the dance.

Now, all this has changed entirely with the waltz, through which emerge, for the first time in the European history of dance, great masses of free-dancing couples; the emphasis is not on uniformity, but on individual expression.  Difficult-to-learn complicated sequences of the minuet, without room for personal creativity, are replaced by the few basic steps of the waltz, which allow one's own temperament room to play.

When entering into a dancing crowd, the dancers put aside their social role; only individual performance and enthusiasm in the dance counts, not one's status in the society outside the ballroom. The waltz is not a copy of an existing social order, nor does it contain narrative moments like its predecessors: as a dance it is absolute, like the circular form in itself.

This absoluteness as a dance may have enabled the waltz ultimately to embrace all social classes equally.  At the same time, this phenomenon is supported by the intellectual and cultural changes since the French Revolution.  In art, there is an increasing detachment from traditional patrons; an art market with the components "free artist" and "general taste" dissolves the dependency on court and church.  The "individual style", emotionalism and romantic devotion to the higher power of nature, first demonstrated the intellectual independence of the middle class, but led further to a sensitive cult of individualism, in which the upper class could join as well.  In its tempestuous abandonment of all conventions, through immersion into a rolling mass, the waltz offered the possibility of actively living the new individualism.  The double spiral movement, the rotation around a couple's own axis while simultaneously tracing a large circle resembles the cosmic orbits of the planets; in the dance, man becomes a moving part of the universe.


Translated by Peter Renzland, 2010-05-05