Monday, December 5, 2011

Waltzing during the English Regency? Preposterous!

by David W. Wilkin

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


  1. This is a wonderful post. Thank you so much. And I must say I'm so chuffed to see someone besides myself take up the issue of the inaccuracy of the waltz (and other things) that are staples of Regency novels.

    The Lievens arrived in London in the autumn of 1812, so I suppose anything is possible from there on out. However, Dorothea did not make a splash at the first, though as her husband was Russia's ambassador, she would have been in company with the Castlereaghs, as Viscount Castlereagh was the Foreign Secretary--and Lady Castlereagh was a patroness of Almack's--and others of governmental/society circles.

    The first reliable source I've found for the waltz being introduced to society is in late 1813, bearing in mind that waltzing (at a ball at someone's country house) is not the same thing as waltzing at Almack's.

    But apparently, Dorothea Lieven had introduced it by then, but it wasn't being performed at Almack's chiefly because the patronesses themselves hadn't mastered the steps. Hence the Duke of Devonshire allowed classes at Devonshire House so that society ladies and gentlemen had a chance to master it and not embarrass themselves in public.

    (I've even read that the Prince Regent turned up there to learn the steps, but since his waistline was about 50" at this time, this is an image I prefer not to contemplate.)

    About the same time, Thomas Raikes writes of that both young and old "returned to school, and the mornings which had been dedicated to lounching in the Parks, were now absorbed at home...whirling a chair around a room to learn the step and measure of the German waltz."

    But one other influence is probable and that is the opening up of the Continent to British travellers by the fall of Napoleon in April 1814. The British, who had been, as you point out, excluded from Europe for decades, flocked across the Channel. Wellington's troops were by summer in Paris--which also had a full complement of Prussians and Russians. The Tsar and his sister visited London in the summer of 1814.

    And autumn brought the Congress of Vienna, with a full bevy of British diplomats and visitors. Though in accounts of the balls there, the waltz is not mentioned much, though the Polonaise, particularly as danced by Tsar Alexander at the opening of evening ball he attended, is. Ad nauseum.

    Thanks again.

  2. That should have read "lounging" in the quotation from Raikes, not lounching. Apologies.

  3. Absolutely fascinating! One of the biggest challenges for me in trying to write historical fiction is finding references like this to help me sort out this kind of detail. Thanks so much for providing such a great reference.

    Maria Grace

  4. Thank you for this post! It is most helpful, and an excellent resource.

  5. This was very timely to read and remind me about accuracy. I am one of the culprits. I do believe I have a college Literacy Club story with a waltz in it during the early Regency period.
    It's unpublished so it doesn't count, right?

    However, not all hope is lost if you need a dance to suit a conversation or for the couple to privately dance together.
    I did discover while writing last year that there was an older dance that was transformed to new meter and grew popular in the Georgian period called the Allemande. It was still occasionally danced in the early Regency period though would have faded into history by the time period discussed above.

    Interesting post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and research.

  6. Ah to be an ape leader dressed in the first stare. But dancing close to your partner face to face, mimicking what is done in the bedchamber, scandalous! Great post!

  7. Thank you so much for the history! I too teach ballroom dance having competed here in the US for a few years. It is funny to ask students which dance is the most scandalous, because they all say tango until we talk about dancing with the same partner for an entire dance! And you're right, it couldn't have been today's "Viennese Waltz" because you'd have had to be too close to accomplish those turns.

  8. I've always wondered about this. It's good to know! Of course, now I have a scene in my head from the movie "Count of Monte Cristo" (the most recent one) where the hero who is playing the count, is dancing with Mercedes at their son's birthday party. It's the waltz, but they only hold one hand. She clutches her dress, and he had his arm folded behind him. Is this the correct pose?

    Also...I have a question about dances that I hope you know What kind of dance was done in the late 1700's here on the continent? Does anyone know? I have an idea for a story, but there has to be some kind of scandalous dance included in the story. I'd hoped it could be the waltz, but now I see that isn't possible.


  9. Which Continent? The minuet remained popular for a long time during the 1700s.

    The Waltz you describe in Monte Cristo (And if I recall this would be 1840s France perhaps) could indeed be done that way. I have done it and you must dance slower and with more control then Viennese, or Victorian waltzing because you lack support and guidance with only one hand.

    The hand in the small of the woman's back must paddle guide her to forward, and you let up to remind her to dance backward. It is not something a novice dancer can do, and not something those who do not trust each other on the dance floor can do.

    I hope I have explained it well enough.

  10. Fascinating. Detailed and serious research.

  11. Lady Sarah Spencer wrote of seeing some royal dukes and others dancing a waltz in 1806 at a gathering at Althorpe.
    The Duke of Devonshore held waltzing parties in 1811 and 1812. lady Caroline Lamb invited Byron to a waltzing party ( to which he went) in 1812. Byron wrote a poem "The Waltz" suggesting that the waltz came with the great comet of 1811.
    In Emma, Mrs. Weston played a waltz for the company when they held a ball. It has been suggested that there was a country dance in squares called the waltz before the couples's dance with the man's hands in scandalous places.
    After the waltz was introduced to Almack's, only the unfledged debs ( as we would call them) were restricted from participating. The married women -- patronesses as well-- danced the waltz . The waltz was the beginning of the end of the English country dancing as it had been.

  12. I have a copy of one of Thomas Wilson's Dance books for 1816 in which he advertises his volume on the waltz. He gives several waltzes in this book -- directions as well as music-- he also has etiquette of the ballroom and a description of the Cushion dance. Alas, the pages are in good shape but the stitches have rotted away.

  13. Agree with Anonymous. Many references to waltzing much earlier and as commonplace by 1813. There were waltzing parties, like Lady Heathcote's on 5 July 1814, where Caro Lamb (who had been bid by Byron during the height of their affair in Spring 1812 not to waltz as his club-foot prevented him from doing so) said ‘I conclude I may waltz now.’ Byron replied: ‘With every body in turn – you always did it better than anyone.
    The moves of the French and German waltzes brought bodies closer together than the modern waltz, including holding the lady's hands behind her back within the circle of your arms - certainly likely to bring bodies in contact. The most shocking aspect was the rule of sustained eye contact that was not meant to be broken during the andante first movement (after the promenade). This was disconcerting in comparison to the fleeting eye (and hand) contact of the country dances or quadrilles. The move from the seductive andante phase into the (allegretto) sauteuse rather breaks the spell, and then minding the complex steps as the pace quickens to allegro in the final phase must have bordered on pixie-dancing.
    The steps to the waltz can be found printed on fans of the time,too.
    Though there was a war on, there was still a flow of ideas and information in fashions, philosophy, science and other areas. It was not a vacuum. Men returning from action against Buonaparte on the continent would bring back songs, dances and fashions they had witnessed, as evidenced in private letters and diaries of the time.
    Very useful discussion! Thank you.


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