Up from disgrace: two and a half beloved dances that no longer shock


Dance at Bougival / Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1882-1883)

Have you ever noticed how many of our cherished cultural traditions were considered disreputable and shocking when they were first introduced? Here are three dance forms from three different countries that had to overcome strong objections before they became respectable. Two of them remain as staples of ballroom dancing.


The German verb waltzen appeared long before the waltz as a specific dance. It refers to the whirling movements of various dances that arose among the peasants of the German-speaking regions of Bavaria, Austria, and Bohemia. These dances were known in Vienna and throughout Europe simply as German dances. Besides the whirling, their most distinguishing characteristic is that couples hold each other in a close embrace.

Waltz steps are simpler and much easier to learn than such courtly dances as the minuet. Being easy to learn undoubtedly contributed to its growing popularity at the end of the eighteenth century, when the middle class began to supplant the aristocracy as social trendsetters.

Court dancing masters opposed the waltz as a threat to their profession. The complex figures of court dances required considerable practice, as well as suitable postures and deportment. The medical profession disapproved of the waltz for the speed at which couples whirled around the room.

Not only that, but many found the close hold shocking. Physical contact in other dances, if any, was strictly limited. At least in part because of these moral considerations, the courts stoutly resisted the waltz.

Meanwhile, all this antagonism merely served to make it popular among the bourgeoisie. In fact, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the aristocracy’s distaste for it made it practically a patriotic necessity. Paris had more than 700 dance halls.

A German visitor to Paris in 1804 noted, “This love for the waltz and this adoption of the German dance is quite new and has become one of the vulgar fashions since the war, like smoking.” British papers complained about it past mid-century, even though Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic and expert waltzer.

The excellence of the waltz music that Johann Strauss, Sr. and Franz Lanner provided for their dance orchestras further boosted the waltz’ popularity. To this day, Strauss waltzes have not been accepted as suitable for symphony orchestra concerts. But waltzes by Tchaikovsky and too many other symphonic composers to mention have become staples of the concert repertoire.


Tango dancers

Tango dancers

Like “waltz,” the word tango did not originally refer to a specific dance or music. By 1853, when Argentina outlawed slavery, it had come to mean a place for African slaves and free blacks to dance. As the century progressed, tangos attracted mostly poor men of mixed ancestry known as compadritos. Their dress, slouch hats, loose bandanas, high-heeled boots, and knives tucked in their belts, testified to their low social status.

Argentina experienced massive immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the new residents were single men, typically poor and probably lonely, hoping to make a lot of money and either return home or bring their families to Argentina.

By this time “tango” may have become not only a place for dancing, but a native African-Argentine dance that had developed there. Like all the various European immigrants, the compadritos flocked to Buenos Aires.

They took the nascent tango dance with them. In dance halls, bars, and brothels, this native dance met other dance traditions that had come from all over the world. Soon enough, new dance steps and musical characteristics formed the beginning of the tango as we know it.

The tango was probably more scandalous than the waltz at a similar stage of development. The man not only placed his hand on the woman’s back, but the two danced cheek to cheek, chest to chest, with their legs entangled as well.

And that’s just for the dance steps. Many couples added flirtatious looks and caresses. Lyrics of early tango songs were full of obscenities and crude references to sex, for which the dance was often merely a prelude.

Ascent from these disreputable venues came in slow increments. Respectable immigrants, who kept their families away from such places, lived in rooming houses, but occasionally asked musicians at weddings or other festive occasions to play tango music. After a while, couples became brave enough to dance a cleaned up, expurgated version of the dance.

It took even longer for the tango to penetrate to the middle and upper class families, but their young men liked to sneak out to the slums to find adventure. It would have been impossible for them to miss the tango. Eventually, they took it home and taught their sisters and other female family members and neighbors how to dance the more nearly acceptable version.

Early in the 20th century, substantial numbers of these young people went to Paris to further their education and introduced the tango there. Paris has a centuries-long reputation as a fount of new dances. Like so many dances before it, the tango became an international sensation after Parisian society embraced it. The Argentine elite who had earlier spurned the tango now found themselves forced to embrace it as a source of national pride.


Ragtime dance

Ragtime dance

Ragtime, an American musical style of black origin, refers to the effect of a syncopated melodic line against a strictly regular bass line. While it is easy enough to find a similar juxtaposition in other music, this rhythmic collision is the entire basis of the ragtime style.

The origins of the ragtime style are lost in the mist of time. In 1847, Louis Moreau Gottschalk wrote a piano piece, La bamboula that certainly evokes the ragtime style. It must be older than that. African slaves probably began to meld African rhythms with European melody and harmony in colonial times.

The word ragtime appeared in the middle of the 19th century as a contraction of  “ragged time.” It predates published ragtime music and most likely refers to the practice of improvising pianists and banjo players of breaking up a conventional melody by syncopating it while keeping a steady, regular bass line.

It appears that the pianists copied the style of banjo playing—neither the first time in history nor the last that a keyboard instrument imitated the style of a plucked string instrument.

The style and structure of piano rags developed years before they became popular enough for publication. Mostly black pianists, including Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, and Jelly Roll Morton, worked out the formal details in the parlors of brothels.

Given the racial climate of the time, as well as general disapproval of red light districts, it is surprising that rags ever saw publication, but Joplin and others had played them at the much more respectable venue of the Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, May-October 1893). 27 million people attended.

“Coon songs,” parodies of black culture and speech, began to introduce syncopated accompaniments as early as 1896. A white bandmaster, William H. Krell, published the first piano rag, Mississippi Rag in 1897. Scott Joplin’s first published rag, Maple Leaf Rag, appeared in 1899 and promptly sold a million copies.

Joplin had some formal musical training, which gave him the knowledge of conventional orthography and the ability to compose more sophisticated content, complete with classical phrase structures and use of dynamics. It looks like real music on the page, and that must have helped the entire genre.

Commercial success does not confer respectability. The youth liked it immediately, something that has upset elders since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. The elders objected to the unfamiliar musical looseness of the constant syncopation. It reminded them of the looseness of morals in the brothels and saloons where ragtime grew up, as well as black culture, which they considered disreputable on its own.

The rag, as a dance form, hasn’t fared as well as the waltz or the tango. Could it be because no one introduced it to Paris? It began to go into decline in the mid 1910s when recordings began to supplant the piano and player piano as the home entertainment center. Jazz, equally disreputable in origin, incorporated all the major elements of ragtime and simply became more popular.

Waltz / Jake Fuller
Argentine tango: a brief history / Susan August Brown
A short history of Argentine tango / by Tomás Alberto García
History of Ragtime / Library of Congress

Photo credits:
Renoir’s painting is public domain.
Source of the others unknown.

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