suburbaknght (suburbaknght) wrote,

Thoughts on Viennese Waltz

I can't recall exactly when it happened, but at some point Viennese waltz became one of my Big Goals in dance. I wanted this dance. For whatever reason, it took a very prominent place in my mind as a dance that called to me. Unfortunately, the opportunities to learn it were slim. There's no bronze Viennese competition in the collegiate system, so when I was in Madison none of my classes were teaching it. Arthur Murray considers Viennese to be an advanced dance and won't teach it to students until they're at least halfway through the entire bronze program; since I was a new student specialist I never taught Viennese and hence received very little training in it. Still, I persevered in independent study and private lessons outside the studio, and finally succeeded in developing a passable social Viennese about August of last year. Since beginning my certification training, my Viennese ability has increased by leaps and bounds. This pleases me immensely.

Contrary to what many teachers claim, Viennese is actually a very simple dance. The core steps (hesitations, reverse turns, natural turns, and change steps) are not particularly intricate and there are only a few techniques (footwork, driving legs, contra body motion, frame, and sway) that are required to make the dance function. The difficulty is that there is no room for error. If a single step is out of place or any of those techniques are not present then the dance will feel labored at best and crash to a halt at worst.

The more I learn Viennese, the more I am convinced that this required precision, and not any inherent difficulty in the dance. Most ballroom studios in the U.S. will refuse to teach Viennese to beginners, something that we have discussed before. I am now convinced this is a marketing decision. Learning Viennese requires of repetition more than anything else, and lots of it. Most beginners are turned off by the amount of raw drilling required to learn the dance and would not complete the program, so ballroom studios direct them to other dances. If they lose a few dancers who had been set on Viennese (like beloitist), it's still a net gain since they direct students into other dances who would have been turned off by the process of learning Viennese.

I think this is a bad process. New students can learn Viennese. In the past few months I have taught Viennese to two single dancers and one couple. The single dancers had limited experience with other dances (one only a smattering of slow waltz, tango, west coast, and hustle; the other had extensive experience with Lindy hop and Argentine tango but only limited experience with ballroom), while the couple had no dance experience at all. The results have been quite encouraging, far better than what I was lead to believe would be the result, even if none of them are set to win any competitions. Clearly Viennese can be taught to beginners, so now the questions are A) should it be taught and B) how should one teach it?

I still believe that beginners should be steered to dances other than Viennese. While the complete newbie couple learned the dance, they did not do nearly as well as the single dancers. That said, if a beginner is set on learning Viennese, a teacher should warn them of what it will entail and then proceed if the student is still on board. Quite frankly, there are reasons a student may want or need to learn Viennese. No one getting married wants to be told they can't use a song their heart is set on, there are many events that feature Viennese waltz dancing, or perhaps the student is traveling. The teacher has a responsibility to help the student reach his or her goals, even if those goals are harder than other students' goals.

That said, the process of teaching Viennese to a beginner is different than teaching a more experienced dancer. All the rules about teaching beginners still apply (proceed slowly, find creative ways to get the student to practice the core material, etc.), but the situation requires special attention. I would not recommend beginner Viennese waltz students be permitted in group classes for the dance unless those classes are specifically targeted for beginners. It is physically painful dancing Viennese with someone who doesn't know what he or she is doing, and any teacher who permits beginning dancers in those group classes is doing a disservice to the other students who attend the class expecting a minimum level of training among the other students. Instead, beginner dancers who insist on learning Viennese waltz should be informed they will need to learn through private lessons until they are judged ready for the group classes.

I've also been thinking about the character of Viennese waltz. As I remarked to d33pthought yesterday, Viennese waltz is an anomaly. Most international dances are intended for competition or performance rather than social dancing, while most American dances are intended for social dancing rather than competition or performance. The exception is Viennese waltz. International Viennese is incredibly simple - it only has nine figures in the entire syllabus though typically only four are used: natural turns, reverse turns, forward change steps, and back change steps - and competitions are focused on the level of precision executing those steps. Conversely, American Viennese waltz includes a dozens of figures, most of which are impractical on a social dance floor and are almost impossible to lead but look beautiful when properly executed. The result is that international is best suited for social dancing where its simplicity becomes an asset, while American is best for performance and competition where its flourishes and patterns can be used and enjoyed by both the dancers and the audience.

When I think about Viennese waltz, and American Viennese waltz in particular, I don't think of it as a social dance. Part of that is a legacy of the pedestal that Viennese waltz has been placed on, but it is also because when you do see it danced to its top level it doesn't look like a social dance. When I see a championship level waltz I see something that looks like it comes from a social floor, even if it is bigger and better than anyone (even those dancers) will ever dance on a social floor. When I see a championship level Viennese waltz, it is always so intricate for the speed that I can never envision it being used socially. The feel is of performance, but is also of idealism. I often say that while slow waltz can feel romantic, the main theme of slow waltz is not romance but of dreaminess. Slow waltz is a dream, whether beautiful or loving or joyful. Viennese waltz is also a dream, but its dream is of the perfect waltz.

This is not to say that American Viennese waltz cannot be done socially - it can - but it aspires to something else.

Here's one that I really like:
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