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Viennese Waltz - a lost gem?

A tribute to the oldest ballroom dance should start with the acknowledgement of folk songs and dances as they are the heart and soul of the music and movement. At the end of the 18th century one of those rustic, peasant, country dances called Ländler (meaning "from the land") evolved around Bavaria and Austria. Dancers were hopping and hip-slapping on three beats in the musical bar with a feeling of "hops-ca-ca". 

Ländler also inspired the greatest composers of the time; Mozart composed Ländler and the noble, elegant, graceful and aristocratic Minuet, both of which gave the base to a magic Viennese formula known as 3/4 time base. 

The dance gradually moved from the countryside to the ballrooms of high society and in the 1780s the Waltz was born. Very smooth and graceful gliding replaced the popular hopping movement of Ländler. When it reached England and other European countries in 1810, the dance was still known as the German Waltz ("walzen" means to roll or to turn). Soon after it adopted the name Viennese Waltz due to the great composers, Josef Lanner, Johann Strauss I and his son, Johann Strauss II who perfected and popularised Viennese Waltz so that it became the pop music of the 19th century. Viennese Waltz appeared to represent the ideals of freedom, lightness and joy of intimacy.

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In 1950, Paul and Margit Krebs, who won the Viennese Waltz in the professional German Championships, were invited to give a presentation to the world’s dance leadership in England. In May 1953, the International Council resolved that the Continental version of the Viennese Waltz must be used in all championships. Today, 70 years later, this dance is facing a serious crisis. 

Let me share with you the following observations regarding the characteristic timing, movement, choreography and atmosphere of this dance. 

Viennese formula timing

What is the secret of the 3/4 time signature? Primarily three beats in the bar are foreign and unnatural to the impulses and the structure of a human body which is duple. You have many body parts in pairs that relate to each other, you walk left/right or the opposite. And yet, we feel the ternary system of three grouped beats as circular, smooth and uplifting. There is something fascinating about triple rhythms, one never tires of them. They lift us above and beyond the binary and the Viennese formula timing can make you feel as though you are nearly flying across the floor. 

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When Viennese Waltz composers got hold of the Waltz, they gave the 3/4 time a signature spatial swing, lilt, a Viennese touch, we could say. Rather than simply an even 1-2-3, the beat value in Viennese formula slightly changes and as such develops more refined timing. The second beat is anticipated, that means that the time distance between the first and the second beat is shorter and the third beat is therefore felt as longer (often not even heard in the original Viennese Waltz, it stays only imagined). 

This is quite different from how most dancers today feel the timing of this dance. Instead of the usual 1-2-3 (OM-PA-PA) you can try the Viennese formula timing of 1-2 - 3 (OM-PA - pah).

What is the benefit of it?

1. You will pick up your swing action earlier and therefore have more time for closing or crossing action.

2. You will also create a better balance between swing and turn. The typical foundation construction of the Viennese Waltz accents the moving, swinging and turning qualities. You are supposed to swing continuously along the floor, but you need to control your energy. Therefore, the "flat foot" usage is essential on step 6 (step 3 for the lady) in Natural and Reverse turns.

3. Two bars of music create a unit of the first leading and second following musical bar. The first bar feels stronger than the second. Four sets of two bars together create an eight bar phrase and four phrases linked together create a chorus. Being aware of that will assist your musical feeling and help you build up the choreography that supports the unique momentum in this dance. 

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Choreography and atmosphere

Viennese Waltz is the only ballroom dance which has kept the basic structure (Natural turn, Reverse turn, Natural and Reverse Forward and Backward closed change, Natural fleckerl, Reverse fleckerl, Contra check) for many decades. Other dances could develop freely, implementing new figures and movement ideas and were permitted a full range of personal choice. Already back in 1968, Len Scrivener suggested implementation of additional figures (Contra Check and Throwaway Oversway, both over 2 bars as a link between Fleckerls, Continuous Spin (Off-Beat Spin), Natural Hinge Line on right side) for the sake of allowing the dance to develop as other four ballroom dances. 

There is a bittersweet quality in the original Viennese Waltz music, teasing lilt in its rhythm with hesitations and poses, elastic charm of its praising and irresistible momentum of its pulse. The choice of figures should reflect that without impeding the continuity of the movement. Figures like Cross Swivel, Running Weave in off beat timing, Left Whisk and some others may be added with the attention to the underlying flow of energy. As this dance is physically tiring, choreography should allow enough scope for flair and some hesitation figures could assist that. However, any figure chosen must be in harmony with the music and characteristic movement manner. 

During the past decade many attempts to make Viennese Waltz more interesting were done by including all possible figures from other dances. Unfortunately, that kind of experimenting doesn't work if the changes are done for the sake of change and have not a lot to do with understanding the character of Viennese Waltz.

Paul Krebs said years ago: "I like stylistic freedom where it doesn’t contradict logic. But it’s my belief that the essence of this dance lies in the rotary/swinging action, and only gets watered down by too many figures and poses." 

Experiments are good, eventually they teach you what doesn’t work and what happens when freedom of choice contradicts logic. When you slavishly follow the majority, mind that this kind of attitude can also cause your own decay. 

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How to preserve the character of the Viennese Waltz?

In order to preserve the original character of Viennese Waltz you need to face the paradox of choice; the choice of choreography and the choice of music you practice to. You have to choose between risks and benefits. 

The risk is in becoming paralysed and overwhelmed due to so many options or becoming unhappy with the choices you eventually make, not trusting them to be the best ones for you. And then you can only blame yourself for making a bad choice out of so many available. With a lot of choices possible, your expectations go up and therefore you will be very seldom positively surprised and truly satisfied.

The benefit is in understanding why more at the end can be less (more figures, less Viennese Waltz). 

If you want to travel deeper into the character of this dance, time and patience are needed to master its technique and understanding of the original Viennese Waltz music. You practice and dance competitions on various rhythms based on the 3/4 or even 6/8 time signature, known as Italian Waltz, French Waltz, American Waltz... as well as many other beautiful songs, be they lyrical, country flavoured or inspired by classical ballet music. But the Viennese Waltz is only one, and it is different from all the others. The awareness of the right music is essential, a precondition to achieve the characteristic movement. 

You need to focus on fundamental ingredients that create the character. Use your knowledge and experience in finding the right balance of figures, timing and dynamics. Dancing happens through you, with your sense of movement in time and space. 

I address the top professional dancers to present appealing examples of a well-balanced Viennese Waltz choreography, phrased and composed of materials that ensure the character of this dance. Help upcoming generations understand the original character of Viennese Waltz, enrich your concept of and attitude towards the dance as a whole, where past values meet present capacity and create our future. 

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Source of inspiration

Len Scrivener, edited by Bryan Allen - "Just one idea"

Alex Moore - "Ballroom dancing"

Brigitt Mayer - "Ballroom icons"

Leonard Bernstein - "Young people's concerts" - A toast to Vienna in 3/4 time