The Waltz serves as the precursor to all contemporary partner dances. Whether it's Tango, Salsa, Mambo, Cha Cha, Semba, Kizomba, Son, Forro, Merengue, Bachata, Zouk, Swing, Jive, or any Ballroom style, they all share a common characteristic—the 'closed hold' position.
Where it all started
Today the original partner style is generally termed the Viennese Waltz. It's the oldest of all the modern partner dance styles in the closed hold, which came from Vienna, Austria.
The Viennese Waltz originates from the Volta in the 1500's which came from France. The Volta was also the only court dance of the period performed by a couple in a closed embrace. It ushered in a whole new way of looking at dance.
Partner dancing started as social dances for groups and couples in the courts of Western Europe and the homes of the upper classes. Formal gatherings where people could enjoy dancing a variety of dances together were called balls, which took place in a ballroom. The word 'ball' derives from the Latin 'balare' meaning 'to dance'.
The Close Hold
In Modern partner dancing, which all stems from the Waltz, the man always leads and the woman follows. They link together in the closed hold that is characteristic of the Waltz. This hold originates from the time when men wore a sword and scabbard on the left-hand side of their belts, making it more comfortable for women to dance on their right.
The Waltz, Volta & Landler
The first record of a dance to 3/4 rhythm is a peasant dance of the Provence area of France in 1559, as a piece of folk music called the Volta, although the Volta has also been claimed to be an Italian folk dance at this time. The word "volta" means "the turn" in Italian. Thus, even in its earliest days, the dance appears to have involved the couple turning as they danced.
The Volta required the partners to dance in a closed position but with the lady to the left of the man! The man held the lady about the waist, and the lady put her right arm on the man's shoulders, and held her skirt with her left. This was necessary to stop it flying up, because the dance involved the man lifting the lady using his left thigh under the lady's right thigh. In order to do this in the Volta, the partners had to hold each other in such a close embrace that many declared it immoral. Louis XIII (1601-1643) had it banned from court on this account.
In 1754 the first music for the actual "Waltzen" appeared in Germany. Any connection between the Waltzen and the Volta remains obscure, except that the word "waltzen" in German also means "to revolve". The dance became very popular in Vienna, with large dance halls being opened to accommodate the craze: Zum Sperl in 1807, and the Apollo in 1808 (said to be able to accommodate 6,000 dancers).
In 1812 the dance was introduced into England under the name of the German Waltz. It caused a great sensation, and Lord Byron when he first saw it, found his lady friend clasped closely by "a huge hussar-looking gentleman, turning round and round to a confounded see-saw, up-down sort of turn like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin".
The Viennese Waltz is danced at a tempo of about 180 beats per minute, with a limited range of figures: Change Steps, Hesitations, Hovers, Passing Changes, Natural and Reverse Turns, Fleckerls, Pivots, and the Contracheck.
The Viennese waltz, so called to distinguish it from the waltz and the French waltz, is the oldest of the current ballroom dances. It emerged in the second half of the 18th century from the German dance and the Ländler in Austria and was both popular and subject to criticism. At that time, the waltz, as described in a magazine from 1799, was performed by dancers who held on to their long gowns to prevent them from dragging or being stepped on. The dancers would lift their dresses and hold them high like cloaks, and this would bring both their bodies under one cover. This action also required the dancers' bodies to be very close together, and this closeness attracted moral disparagement. In 1797, Wolf published a pamphlet against the dance entitled "Proof that Waltzing is the Main Source of Weakness of the Body and Mind of our Generation". But even when faced with all this negativity, it became very popular in Vienna. Large dance halls like the Zum Sperl in 1807 and the Apollo in 1808 were opened to provide space for thousands of dancers. The dance reached and spread to England sometime before 1812. It was introduced as the German waltz and became a huge hit. It gained ground through the Congress of Vienna at the beginning of the 19th century and by the famous compositions by Josef Lanner, Johann Strauss I and his son, Johann Strauss II.
Initially, the waltz was significantly different from its form today. In the first place, the couples did not dance in the closed position as today. The illustrations and descriptions make it clear that the couples danced with arm positions similar to that of the precursor dances, the Ländler and the Allemande. The hold was at times semi-closed and at times side by side. Arms were intertwined and circling movements were made under raised arms. No couple in Wilson's plate are shown in close embrace, but some are in closed hold facing each other. Another significant difference from the present technique was that the feet were turned out and the rise of foot during the dance was much more pronounced. This can be seen quite clearly in the image, and such a style imposes its limitations on how the dance can be performed.
Almost all partner dances share universal basics, many of which have their roots in the Waltz. These basics have been adapted, developed, and combined across various cultures, creating unique dance styles like Bolero, Son, Bachata, Semba, Forro, Tango, and more. While each dance reflects the identity of its culture, it is essential to acknowledge the influence of the Waltz and Volta, which laid the foundation for partner dancing in Europe during the 1500s.