Viennese Waltz – PLEASE use the right music!

(And of course in other dances as well!)

By Michael Herdlitzka

In all (good) dancing, the character of the music will influence the performance of the dancers significantly. In competitive Standard (or as we more conservative dancers like to say: Ballroom) and Latin American dancing the “true” character of each of the ten dances is given by definition of our technique books and the tradition of teaching and performing. Therefore the use of music displaying the characteristic values of the dance concerned is essential.

Unfortunately we envisage loads of CD dance music which are used widely, obviously liked by a majority of teachers (!) and dancers and subconsciously considered as “good” because they are from “dance CD’s”. Most of these tunes sound great. This brings us into the danger of “liking” something which really “sounds great” but does not necessarily reflect the desired characteristics. The dancing profession ought to discuss in a broader sense whether a samba with a very pronounced basic rhythm, but arranged for oriental instrumentation and sung in Hebrew can be somehow close to “characteristic” or not. It may be observed best in show dance or formation competitions what may happen to music when everything is changed but the time signature. Generally in the world of competitive dancing we tend to agree that we are likely to be very tolerant about all characteristic elements of music except for the basic rhythm.

The – as I think – absolutely vital intolerance against unclear, untidy basic rhythm is for some reason or another about to be abandoned. This is true for many of our ten dances, most of all for the Viennese Waltz. The majority (!) of music used in practice or competition is NOT in character with the original Viennese Waltz rhythm or character and this is not even noticed by the majority of dancers. I am afraid it is not even noticed by the majority of teachers or adjudicators either. I remember only a few years ago in Blackpool a world class professional lecturing and demonstrating – obviously unknowingly – to not only poor but wrong music.

The recognition of the basic time signature is no way enough to be sure about the rhythmic interpretation. Both Samba and Paso Doble are originally written in 2/4 timing. We could argue that there are differences in speed. When I started to learn dancing Samba was usually played at 58 bpm which is hardly noticeable different from the 60 bpm of Paso Doble. Still we had never too great difficulties in differentiating between the two dances. The general tendency to slow down most of our dance music causes numerous changes in its character. I personally am not so sure whether this is a good idea. It would be most definitely bad for the “flying” approach a brilliant dancer could obtain when dancing to typical Viennese Waltz music on a very large floor. So speed is important. But it is very obvious that there are (many) other factors apart from “beats to the bar” and speed which make a difference in a dance’s character. There are various types of accents (not just a thing called “the” accent, and I am proud of having inspired Mr. Laird himself after such a discussion to add the word “percussive” when referring to accentually elongated but not leading beats in Latin American music), the intonation, rhythmic (called “sets”) as well as melodic patterns (called “phrases”, often mixed up and misinterpreted in our dancing world) and last but not least the “typical” kinds of musical and rhythmical instruments.

It is not just the number of beats to the bar, it is the dispersion of relative beat values (and their accentuation) throughout the bar which makes the “rhythm” and therefore a certain character of music recognisable. At very first glance the rhythmical structure of the Viennese Waltz looks fairly simple. There are three beats of (almost!) even value to the bar:

♪ ♪   ♪

We would count such a pattern instinctively – and correctly – as “1 – 2 – 3”. But in fact the real and original rhythmical pattern of Viennese Waltz looks slightly different. (Apart from the fact that the Viennese Waltz is the ONLY one of our ten dances originally written in even sets – not phrases – of eight bars, consisting of four subsets with one leading and one following bar each, four of such sets forming a chorus, although sets and phrases most often coincide in Viennese Waltz.) One of the greatest conductors of our time brought it forward very clearly when once conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the world famous New Year’s Concert: “The count of the original Viennese Waltz is 1, 2, perhaps 3.”

♪      ♪       ♪

The beat values change only slightly but the second beat is anticipated, in other words the time between beats 1 and 2 is shorter than between beats 2 and 3. The count of “1 – 2 – 3” is therefore misleading. I had been very lucky to have the one and only “Flying Dutchman” Mr. Benny Tolmeyer as my teacher and he always used the most appropriate method of counting the Viennese Waltz: “Om–pa – pah”, thus creating a feeling somehow close to “quick – quick – slow” rather than just an even “1 – 2 – 3”. This feeling is in my opinion essential to create the right balance between swing and turn as it was meant to be typical for the original Viennese Waltz. The feeling of a “slow” on the third step would prevent the ever so many competitors (of ALL grades unfortunately!) from the mostly rushed and “hoppy” closing or crossing action. The “quicks” at the beginning of each bar would encourage couples to pick up their swing earlier instead of trying to push a far too long and heavy step on “1”. But in order to do this, they must be aware of the rhythmical character of the music they use for practicing and of course competing.

Looking, or let us better say listening into most Viennese Waltz music on today’s dance CD’s shows us all sorts of rhythms based on 3/4 timing. We can find lots of tunes in plain “1 – 2 – 3” timing, sometimes nice to hear but not in character with the original. This timing would be characteristic for the – let us say – “Italian Waltz” but should then be played much faster. We can find the French Waltz not even in 3/4 but 6/8 timing, very nice to hear due to the reoccurring triplets but this will force dancers to “hop” on every single step. And we can find very popular – because sounding “Italian” – tunes with just the reversed rhythmical pattern which should be counted and felt close to “slow – quick – quick”. Obviously none of these will support the development of the correct and characteristic type of swing and turn. On the contrary getting used to the wrong music will – especially in “musical” dancers (!) – foster the development of the wrong, uncharacteristic movement of poor quality.

Let us support the dancing of a better, more characteristic Viennese Waltz! Let us assist teachers and competitors by making them aware of the right music! Let us force competition and practice organisers to use only music which reflects the true and original character of each dance!

Basic and advanced choreography in Viennese Waltz

The discussion about the “restricted syllabus” in Viennese Waltz has been going on for decades. Nobody could ever show me a written rule on this “restriction”, nevertheless most people in the business seem to be convinced the choreography in Viennese Waltz has to be limited to turns, change steps and Fleckerls. The WDSF recently in a very unfortunate attempt to “develop” this wonderful dance allowed the “Team Diablo” (the name says it all) to heat up the discussion again. I am very grateful for the now very controversial debate as it is always conflict (!) that promotes (but also sometimes hinders) true and sustainable development.

I always loved this dance for the unique opportunity to create body flight on a level far beyond any other dance (including Quickstep!). I particularly wonder why just today, when speed seems to mean “everything”, dancers would frivolously relinquish the highest possible speed in dancing and replace it by much of the same old (!) figures well known and bored of in the other dances. To obtain the ultimate level of body flight the floor has to be vast (!) and of course the music has to be right (!) in rhythm, character and speed (it would not work below 60 bpm). When Mr. Hurley speaks about the “death of the Viennese Waltz” it has already occurred many years ago when producers of music cd’s ruthlessly started to call every tune in nearly ¾ timing a “Viennese Waltz”. That is what makes me really sad and angry that almost nobody (whether competing, teaching or adjudicating) noticed the sneaking death of the real and appropriate Viennese Waltz music. Those who noticed did not take actions (including myself) against early enough.

Personally I am not (!) against open choreography in Viennese Waltz. This dance should allow for the same amount of freedom and creativity as the other dances. Nothing is “new” about the “new choreography”. All figures are nowadays danced in all other dances anyhow. Unfortunately this insane development is supported by our “bible books” as the tables of “figures to be danced in more than one dance” become longer and longer from edition to edition. Once the understanding (and feeling!) is lost the Tumble Turn being a Foxtrot figure and not really to be used in the Tango, there is no more obvious reason not to use Tango figures in the Viennese Waltz and Quickstep figures in the Waltz.

Many “new” figures have always been there, such as all the hesitation and checked things, because they are very useful in cases of blocked ways. So finally it is a good thing that they were written down somewhere. Mr. Len Scrivener e.g. (he could certainly not be accused of wanting to “camouflage” bad dancing) suggested some 40 years ago a number of useful augmentations of the “usual” choreography. He described the Throwaway Oversway as very natural change step from reverse turn into natural Fleckerl. He suggested the Right Hinge (not “discovered” by the presenters of the “new” choreopgraphy) as very gentle alternative change step from natural to reverse. Many more examples can be found by carefully analysing sensible choreographic means still in character (!) with the right music.

That is where the presenters of the “new choreography” failed. They did not analyse the music, they did not analyse the character, they did not enough analyse the structure of choreography in relation to the floor, they just analysed “what is possible to dance”. So they did just the same what is already usual in the other dances: Go for the possible and disregard any meaning, character and originality.

As long as the right music is used (and perhaps understood) I am very open. Yes, be creative and invent new figures (not just borrow old ones from other dances). Yes employ more in your Viennese Waltz work than just turns, change steps and Fleckerls. But make sure it reflects and supports the character of the dance. Make sure it will not cause more troubles or even injuries on our dance floors than we already have. I could not recommend any Promenade figure as this is clearly against character and would not work at full speed. I could not recommend stationary figures in the corners as this will block other couples “flying” towards that corner, at least when coming out. I could not recommend figures changing the direction in itself strongly (as the Running Weave e.g.) because this will inevitably lead into dancing against L.O.D. (as “beautifully” demonstrated by the world champion on an empty floor!).

I am looking forward to further developments and discussions. I am looking forward to people who understand what they are doing creating great new (!) ideas to the benefit of quality in all our dancing. I am looking forward to better dancing instead of more figures with less meaning.

Michael Herdlitzka

  1. Hi Michael

    Nice article.

    You are right – many dance venues don’t understand the music they are playing. This is particularly true of the Viennese Waltz, especially here in Australia where we do a lot of “sequence” dances in all genres, otherwise known as “New Vogue” dances.

    It was just last Saturday night my wife and I went to a dance and they band played two nice tunes for the Pride of Erin (a Viennese based sequence dance originally from Britain). Then they played a tune totally out of character. I stopped dancing after the first 3 or 4 bars and stopped to listen to the music more closely. They were playing a 2/4 song!

    I did curiously ask the band members at the end of the night why they played a 2/4 song for a dance that should be 6/8 (or at the least, a fast 3/4). They knew the time signature was wrong, but they wanted to “liven up the dance”. WRONG!!

    A lot of times, too, particularly for sequence dances, tunes/songs go “out of phase”. For example, all Viennese based sequence dances we do have 4 X 8 bar “phrases”, and usually the last 4 bars (although not always) finishes with 4 natural or reverse waltzes. The Pride of Erin and Palma Waltz have 8 waltzes at the end, taking up one phrase just with waltzes.

    The same is true for the Foxtrot (4/4) and Quickstep (2/4 and 4/4) based dances and even slow waltzes (3/4). Every slow waltz sequence dance we do are 16 bar routines, and a perfect (un-edited) song for them is Until It’s Time for You to Go by Elvis Presley.

    Out of phase music is OK for freestyle dances, but not suitable for sequence dances because they are 16 bar or 32 bar routines, so the music has to reflect this. Often, I have had to “chop out” (using Audacity) sets of bars to bring the music back into phase. One example is Moody Blues by Elvis Presley, where 4 bars had to be removed from the song (the trick is joining the song back seamlessly).

    Another thing I have noticed is that a lot of dancers (mainly in the social scene, I would guess) do not understand the difference between Quick and Slow. Eg, a basic foxtrot step might be Slow-Slow-Quick-Quick-Slow (measuring two bars – Slow = 2 beats, Quick = 1 beat). I call these people “walkers” because that is what they do – walk out the steps with no or little change in their step timings. It is awful to watch. Particularly in slow dances like the Rumba (Quick-Quick-Slow) it is important (even vital) to get that correct timing of Quicks and Slows.

    Anyway, Micheal, great article.

  2. I was at a ballroom dance class this very evening, when I mused & questioned the phrasing & character of the Viennese Waltz. The more I ponder the music I move to, the greater license I will have of appreciating the arts – with the end being the growth of my students’ sensibilities.
    Please give me this rich (music & movement) study of the other three-fours: Spanish 3-4, Strauss 3-4, etc.
    Ditto (August, Danish Ballet Pioneer) “BOURNONVILLE 6-8?”
    Ditto Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. They are always so enjoyable because of their light & humourous tone.
    What can you better inform me of that will bring the movements to life when I teach ballet, tap, jazz, & modern dance classes.
    Merci beaucoup!

  3. I’m writing a piece that involves this subject, but from a different point a view as I am talking about the American Smooth division. I don’t have the music education you do (In fact, I don’t have a music education at all). I love what they are doing in the American style with the “V. Waltz” in the sense that I love the music they dance to, and the evolution of the choreography, but I too find it troublesome that no one seems to notice that it is not Viennese Waltz; it’s not even close! I only mention that V. Waltz has a very specific time signature that goes beyond ¾ at certain bpm tempo, and for that reason I think they should just go ahead and change the name of the dance. I was going to say they should just call it the three quarter, or the Triplet.

    But I have a question. As for the songs, they play in the American division, songs like, “A Kiss from a Rose” by Seal, in ¾ time, or are these in a different time, with the use of a triplet. Is not a triplet where they split one very slow beat to sound like ¾? Am I close? (Now don’t make fun of me. lol)

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