More often than we realize, our polyglot culture cleans house, and what it doesn't throw out entirely, it stuffs in the shed. Some relics are retrieved from time to time, like Christmas decorations; most of them languish until their original purpose is forgotten.
The Viennese waltz has been in the shed for a long time now. A dance that inspired every major classical composer of the 19th century has passed through a natural life cycle, from scandalous past to respectable dowdiness, and it now exists as a paradox: timeless but anachronistic, beloved but useless. If this sounds sad, like the willowy first theme of Johann Strauss's "Wiener Blut," it's worth remembering that we live in a culture that has more stuff in the shed than in the house. The world may be all about the latest trend, but the opposite of a trend, marginalization, is an infinitely more subtle and complex process.
Outside of some major European capital, a rural wedding is in progress. Let's say it's June and everything is so plump and rich and saturated with big, sloppy kisses from the solstice sun that the world feels like a strawberry that's about to burst its pockmarked skin and decay into sweet, pure jelly. The bride is beautiful, the groom is beautiful, the wedding is stately and serious and terribly touching and then it's time to dance. First the bride and groom together, awkward and shy, and then the father of the bride cuts in and they do a sad valedictory turn, like a trombone dancing with a piccolo. After that the floor is open and everyone who was standing around with a silly grin (in defense of tears) is now in danger of becoming a wallflower.
I remember that wedding and I remember thinking, hey, I can fake a waltz. So I strode up to a young woman who was looking eager and beautiful, and gallantly offered my hand. I dragged her through a pathetic little box step in 3/4 time, until Grandpa cut in and rescued her. I watched them twirl under the open sky as if pulled by an invisible string along a beautiful serpentine track that no one else could see.
That's the waltz I'm interested in, the one you see in period costume flicks, with men in tails and women in gowns, breathlessly yet effortlessly rotating counterclockwise on a crowded dance floor. The dance they do in Vienna, the dance I always imagine--incorrectly--that Jane Austen's beautiful young folk did. A way of hearing and feeling how the world tumbles through its orbit without ever falling into the center; the dance in which people are planets and music is the sun.
That waltz--the Viennese waltz--is almost entirely gone, at least in America. The waltz is a small and lovely niche of ballroom dance. It survives as a small but enduring subculture and is not likely to benefit from the kind of populist revival recently enjoyed by swing dance. Nor has it been carefully tended like the Cajun waltzes that still play a vital role in Louisiana and are easily found here at local dances and clubs.
Vic Daumit, who has run his own dance studio in Washington since 1948, says when people come in and ask to learn the waltz, it means only one thing: They have a wedding coming up. Fathers must do an obligatory waltz with the bride. Daumit teaches them the slower American waltz, a dance that moves at a pace deliberate enough that you have time to think about where your feet go. He steers people away from the faster European waltzes, including the Viennese.
"Those are harder, but unless you're going to a white-tie affair, it's hardly worth it," he says. Daumit is a practical man. His studio has survived disco--the nadir, he says, for social dancing--and the macarena: "It drove us crazy, it's the kind of thing a child could teach, and people just looked so pathetic doing it." The American waltz, the waltz one does to "Moon River" or "Fascination," is for him like a good, dark-colored single-breasted suit: Never out of fashion, always useful on the country-club circuit. The Viennese waltz may look pretty, but it gets bad mileage.
Even in the remnants of what was once known as high society, the waltz is virtually gone. Mary-Stuart Montague Price has organized the National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball for 50 years now. The evening debutante ball, held each year on the day after Thanksgiving, is preceded (for those who need it) by a morning lesson in dance. But even the slow American waltz that fathers do with their newly presented daughters is reduced to a purely symbolic function.
"After they've all been presented, the girls curtsy on the sound of chimes to each area of the ballroom floor," Price says. "After that they have their first dance with their father, which is a waltz--it really is a beautiful sight--and then the music changes up to a swing beat and the escorts cut in."
Today's father-daughter waltz is a prim little thing, an appendage to the real party. But when the waltz first conquered European society, a little less than two centuries ago, its propriety was still in question. The waltz followed the usual progression of scandal: It began as wildly improper, moved on to being merely unhealthy, eventually became accepted and in our time fizzled into something passe. A guide to dance and exercise published in 1836 warns that it could "produce in women of a very irritable constitution, syncopes, spasms and other accidents which should induce them to renounce it." Even as late as 1892, a moralizing tract published in Chicago called "From the Ballroom to Hell" warned young women of its dangers: "His hot breath, tainted with strong drink, is on her hair and cheek, his lips almost touch her forehead, yet she does not shrink. She is filled with the rapture of sin in its intensity." To Hell, indeed.
The waltz had two moral failings: The dancers held each other too closely and they moved too quickly. In short, it was sexual and a bit vulgar, the same criticisms that dogged the tango a century later. Compared with the frumpy minuet, an 18th-century aristocratic dance, the waltz was an unruly roller coaster; the minuet was all about precise steps and glides, while the waltz was animated by something more mysterious and less rational, a primitive human craving for speed and contact.
Despite its suspect moral character, the waltz conquered quickly and absolutely. It developed in the 18th century from fast German and Austrian folk dances. By the time of the Congress of Vienna, in 1814--at which the Continent's crowned heads tried to knit themselves a new Europe after Napoleon messed up the old order--the waltz was raging. The political summit helped spread the dance to every corner, and the waltz, a symbol of earthy sensuality, gained perhaps the widest musical currency since Gregorian chant. It became a cultural expression of the newly forming centralized society, a dance in which essentially anonymous couples spin around a central core.
Even during the most contentious and ideologically fraught years of the 19th century, "respectable" composers took the waltz very seriously. Brahms was friends with the great Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr., an unlikely friendship at first glance. A photograph of the two shows Johann dressed exquisitely, perfectly coifed and kempt; Brahms looks like a pear in sackcloth, with a ZZ Top beard. Yet the old symphonic master admired Strauss's effortless melodic invention, and when Brahms turned his hand to writing waltzes (for the piano), he produced the most tender, melancholy and unself-conscious music of his career.
Brahms was not alone. Almost every major composer since the early 19th century has tried his or her hand at the waltz, which became a creative outlet for high art's occasional populist impulses, as well as a highly developed form in its own right. Chopin fashioned the waltz into brief piano idylls, difficult to dance to but seductive. Wagner wrote a waltz for the Flower Maidens in his most deadly earnest opera, "Parsifal." Waltzes are the starchy staples of every major 19th-century ballet score--Tchaikovsky's three groundbreaking ballets especially. When Ravel wrote his animalistic "La Valse," a big stumbling drunk of a waltz from 1918, he not only was reflecting on the end of an era shattered by trenches and mustard gas, he was summing up a century-long musical tradition. In our century, Shostakovich wrote waltzes, many of them for film scores, when he was in hot water with Stalin; their perfection seems like nose-thumbing.
Anniversary Waltz? In Washington, the new year came and went with little waltzing, in the concert hall or the dance hall. The National Symphony Orchestra put more of popular American composer Leroy Anderson on its New Year's Eve program than Johann Strauss; the Washington Opera performed a happily antiquated opera by Bellini, not Strauss's "Die Fledermaus." Nineteen ninety-nine had been a little bit of a letdown for waltz lovers. The older Johann Strauss died in 1849, and the younger and more famous son died in 1899, so it was a double-whammy year for anniversaries. Orchestras and opera companies will grab at any intellectual straw to legitimize the programming of "light music," but the Strauss clan enjoyed no particular glut of performances. Not even one major conference with a title like "Strauss pere et fils: The Sexual Economy and Social Strategies of Bourgeois Vienna."
Indignity after indignity. A call to the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York yields only a "there must have been something going on" to a query about major Strauss events in this country. Even the New York debutante ball was canceled last year--because millennium madness was eating away at reservations. I call the Arthur Murray studio in Bethesda (with several different dance studios, the town is a hotbed of social dance in the metro area), but I don't hear back for days. This is okay by me. The Arthur Murray ad in the Yellow Pages says the studio is "franchised." Do I really want to learn about an old and elegant European dance form from McDance? Besides, Arthur Murray is in the business of promoting dance; I want to understand how it got culturally demoted.
There's no definitive cataclysm in the waltz's demise. Gene Donati, a much-in-demand Washington band leader, blames Elvis.
"It began in the '50s and it's gotten progressively worse," says Donati. With Elvis, and the emergence of rock, couples move apart. Dances are more free-form, less dependent on coordination between people. "The days of a purely waltz ball are gone," he says. "Maybe you've got a couple of codgers in their eighties. One time we did a big waltz ball because they said they wanted a waltz ball. We go there all prepared to play waltzes the whole evening. But after 20 minutes, they want something to happen at the party."
Price, of the National Debutante Cotillion, puts the decline of the waltz a bit later. "During the Vietnam War a lot of traditions turned downward, a lot of traditions went out the window. From the social aspect, the family aspect, things deteriorated during the '60s. The American flag was desecrated."
The decline of a tradition happens slowly, and Price and Donati choose different but telling moments in the slow fade to twilight. The generation that moved away from close dancing to freer forms still knew the old dances; the generation that came of age during Vietnam (and after) would have had to ask its parents for lessons, and who asks their parents to teach them anything? So now the skill has to be learned from scratch.
Terry Chasteen is a former livestock breeder who teaches dance at the Bethesda Ballroom and Dance Sports Center on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. If there's Viennese waltzing left in America, Chasteen knows where to find it. He's competed professionally as a ballroom dancer; in 1998 he traveled to Amsterdam to compete in the Gay Games. He teaches many different styles and is about to begin two months of Sunday afternoon Viennese waltz classes.
"The Viennese waltz is very simple--left turns, rights turns and close changes," he says. This sounds suspicious at first, until he adds, "but you have to do them at a hundred miles an hour." I listen to his description and think of those little diagrams you find in dance manuals, the indecipherable footprints that look like the naval array at Trafalgar and offer the uninitiated little more than a lesson in Twister. There is no avoiding the necessity of a proper lesson, with live bodies and real music.
On the way to the Bethesda Ballroom I think of an anecdote my car mechanic, Gary, likes to tell me. He gets his wife to take the car into another mechanic's shop. She comes back with a very long list of things that need fixing. So he gives the mechanic a call, they talk, and at first Gary doesn't let on that he's a mechanic, and a damn good one.
"So then I say, can you tell me what the PSI in the pump was at the point you got the last reading?" Gary loves to keep his light under a bushel, and then ask some very precise technical question that makes scam artists squirm. Hiding and then revealing some very particular skill is basic human fun, a game that rewards hard work and modesty with the pleasure of a little one-upmanship. But first one actually has to learn mechanics.
This is part of my mixed motives for going to Bethesda. Even if it is an irrelevant social skill, as practical as knowing how to tie an ascot, someday perhaps, if only just once, I'll be able to use it. And redeem myself for having inflicted a box step on a young woman years ago.
Chasteen, a patient and thoughtful teacher, is right about the Viennese waltz's basic simplicity and dizzying speed. First the reverse turn, easy enough if your legs don't get tangled on the third and fourth beats, then the natural turn, a handy way to negotiate corners, but a strangely counterintuitive step. And that's about it. The rest of your life will be spent trying to get from dance-class speed to Johann Strauss speed while maintaining a sense of style and grace. On the stereo, a crooner sings "and the weeks turn to months and the months turn to years . . . "
Later I practice the basic steps at home but the dog gets in the way and the room isn't long enough. After about six beats I'm in danger of going through the plate glass window, which reminds me to shut the blinds. I feel slightly embarrassed about practicing. What if I go from someone who is merely curious about the waltz--in a strictly intellectual way, mind you--to somebody who waltzes furtively by himself in the dark, at home?
The waltz used to be all about three things: sex, social climbing and the exhilaration of movement. Today, to the extent that it is still done, it is a safe haven from a libidinally charged world, and a social equalizer. Church groups send kids to Swing Night because it's safe. Chasteen says he teaches people from college age to 80. In his class a gay man dances with a woman from the former Soviet Union, a government worker with an international lawyer. Nobody is going to Hell. No one suffers syncope. The idea of social climbing in this context is ridiculous. Which way is up?
When traditions, especially ones associated with aristocracy, get old in our remorseless society, the people who keep them up live in perpetual danger of being stigmatized. Only freaks would leave a visiting card or master the finer points of 19th-century glove flirtation (clenching them in the right hand meant no, dropping one meant yes, dropping both meant yeah, baby, let's do it, according to a Baltimore publication from 1877). The stigma of practicing such things is the same one that haunts the mortician: The association with death is just a little too close.
It's easy to see why the waltz would fall out of favor. It's a strict and unforgiving dance from a strict and unforgiving time. "No man should attempt to dance without being well acquainted with the figures; for his blunders place the woman who does him the honour to dance with him in an embarrassing situation." Encouraging words from "Etiquette for Gentlemen, by a Gentleman," published in Philadelphia in 1844.
Dancing blunders aren't even a misdemeanor anymore. But the waltz, which was scandalous when it was new, has become a bit scandalous to maintain. In a world atomized into a million subcultures, the waltz is quietly having its second childhood.