One of the challenges that I have encountered as a writer is that history and what is happening around the characters be mostly true to what we know of the past. When I first read Regency Romances and saw inaccuracies, I wanted to fault the writer for what they should have known. Now that I am a writer I recognize that we bend the truth on occasion. Did Wellington really meet our heroine? Was Prinny an intimate of our Lord? But as a dance teacher of many of the dances of the period, nothing irks me more then to see our protagonist out for a spin on the dance floor before the waltz was accepted.
Our principals in uncovering whether this could be done are Thomas Wilson, dance master and author of the period, Tsar Alexander, ruler of all the Russias, and the Countess Dorothea von Lieven-a patroness of Almacks. The time period that this spans is 1813 to 1816, so recounting waltzing in England before then is verboten. Other writers might take exception to this. Waltzing was done on the Continent before 1812. Not as we know it now. The man’s hands were in completely different locations. The tempo of the music also was different, so the footwork is not the turning box step that we have today. Or even the floating circle that Victorian waltz was.
Waltzing on the Continent, in the midst of a war, where movement between society was very limited at the time, most likely would remain on the Continent. Many Romances set in the period of the Regency often turn a blind eye to the war and the effects of the war that went on for nearly 25 years. An entire generation lived at that time, and most books think of this as an after thought. It is clear that the war, and Liberated France had an effect on England. We look at the Regency as the years of 1811 to 1820 when Prince George served as Regent for his father, but culturally we can relate this as the end of the Georgian Era, say from the 1790s (the fall of Bourbon power in France) to the mid 1830s (William IV and Victoria.)
When I was first exposed to the issue, it was through verbal history that we have no waltzing in English Society until the visit of Tsar Alexander to Almacks. As a historian one knows that primary sources are best, and verbal history from 1814, just is very hard to verify at this time. (How old would someone have to be to have been at Almacks to have witnessed the event, 212 years old now?) But primary sources are also hard to track down, and sometimes if a thing is known by all to be true, then is it not true?
In all probability waltzing was known by some, the man’s right hand raised above, his left lowered in between he and his partner, not his left hand clutching the lady behind her back to bring her close to his chest. That of course is great for a romantic Regency novel, and one where your hero and heroine can talk ever so intimately on the dance floor. But should the waltzing of the period been known by a few the Patronesses of Almacks had deemed it socially unacceptable.
Now trying to put in context what that means today. To do something deemed socially unacceptable would be like dining nude in public as if you were a minority in San Francisco (It was recently in the news.) Once you have done it, you find that your circle of friends shrinks a great deal. (It also seems a little unhygienic. The dining in San Francisco thing.) So back to Regency London, if you are at Almacks, well the musicians are not going to play any music for you to have a chance to do so. Their playlist is already set by the Patronesses.
If you have your own ball, and it is found that you had done this scandalous dance, (men holding the hands of their partners throughout, absurd) then would you get vouchers to permit you back to Almacks, where all of society mingles? Not likely. You might be regarded as part of the fast set, those who are talked of in ondits all the time. And of course the waltz needs two to dance. So were you to do so, you also have to corrupt a partner to the dark side also.
Those of us who have learned to waltz, or who teach it, also know that doing so is not something that you snap your fingers and it is mastered. It takes time. So again, how do we allow that a country that does not want to have this dance done by its leaders of society see heroes and heroines in our novels know how to do it before it was taught?
Countess Lieven was a patroness of Almacks, in England as wife of the Russian Ambassador from 1812 to 1834, we see she was a beauty, and notorious for having several liaisons with many statesmen of Europe. She became a Patroness of Almacks sometime around 1814. In 1826, she became the Princess Lieven. She was quite instrumental as a go between when Tsar Alexander slipped into England with his sister, Grand Duchess Catherine. The English adored the Russians much more then they liked their own royalty and this caused no few problems for the allies. (Russia and England were allied at the time against France.) The Countess smoothed matters and Prinny (George IV) became indebted to her.
It is possible that the Countess first taught the waltz, but as the verbal history goes, the Tsar came to Almacks, where there was a ball in the Assembly rooms for Society (having a voucher to Almacks so you could see and be seen was the difference in being part of the Ton, the ten thousand elite of England, and the elite of the Ton.
It is more likely to my mind that the waltz for its intimacy, even though there was more separation between dancers then, then now, was not danced until the Tsar asked it to be played so that he could dance it.
One can see how perhaps the Countess may have showed off the waltz, but it was not yet accepted or allowed to be danced. She was not yet a Patroness of Almacks, she was the wife of an ambassador, she was not English. But in 1814 when she serves to intercede between the Tsar and Prinny, she rises in stature. Then she would have the presence in society to be a leader. She would be able to keep alive a cultural phenomena her sovereign introduced.
What is my last clue to how things play out, is how does one teach the waltz? Unlike country dance, where we have documentation going back over 150 years at the time to Playford and his The English Dancing Master, we don’t have an English text on the waltz until Thomas Wilson writes A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing, in 1816. Wilson presents a dance as described before, different then we are familiar with now, a five step movement. Are these clues, and pieces of historical fact enough to give us the definitive first day that one can cite that waltzing is allowable in England?
Perhaps it is enough when we take into account the society of the times. We know the attitude of the period, and we have documentation showing us when others could learn how to do the dance. This research affirmed for me what the verbal history had shown and given me a predilection to. Waltzing before the Tsar visits London, never! But after, well if it is good enough for an Emperor, how can anyone question it being good enough for the Ton.
Elizabeth Aldrich From the Ballroom to Hell, 1991