The Cowboy Waltz
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For over 200 years, the waltz has been considered to be the ultimate social dance. Though it was danced by European peasants for untold decades before then, it first appeared in 'proper' social ballrooms in the early 1800s. It scandalized everyone except the young adults to whom it was a wonderful break from the stiff minuets of the recently passed Baroque period of the late 18th Century.
The conservative minded elders of the time viewed the waltz, with its close embrace and pleasurable turns, as the embodiment of lust and evil. It was banned from public dances and for much of the first half of the 19th Century, a Catholic could be excommunicated from the church for dancing it even in Early California.
The famous Don Juan Bandini of San Diego introduced the waltz to the Californios in the 1830s in open defiance of the church's edicts and the Californios took it to heart in spite of the padres' efforts. It was common to divert the padre's attention during the fandangos so that both young and old could partake of the waltz's forbidden pleasures without benefit of clergy.
In the mid-19th Century, the polka appeared. That joyous dance lacked the waltz's erotic undertones and it swept away the resistance against the very idea of close couple dancing. The polka swept Europe and America and it took the waltz with it. The polka was common in the California gold camps within ten years of its first discovery in Bohemia. Both dances are still with us and probably will be for generations to come.
Having arrived in America just in time to be integrated into the westward movement, both dances became important activities in that period of American history. To those of us interested in the American West, it is worthwhile to understand what the dance was all about and how it was danced.
You must understand that dancing is integral to a woman's genetics. I have rarely met a woman who didn't long to be swept away in a dance, safe in a man's arms. They love it! You shouldn't disappoint them.
First of all, forget anything you ever learned about dancing from your Western Line Dance class or Arthur Murray's Dance Studio. The waltz under consideration here is from the Victorian Age of the 19th Century and bears little resemblance to the creations of today's social dance choreographers. Think "Viennese Waltz," or more properly "Victorian Waltz."
Dance was an important social activity in the Old West and the level of skill was generally high. Dancing was an integral part of West Point training and the military posts were staffed with officers who were tutored in the finer points of ballroom etiquette. A large portion of those on the westward trek were either from the late, genteel Old South or from northern and western Europe with a long tradition in social dance. New Englanders and Southern planters alike brought their dances west with them to add to the mix and the waltz was one of the most important.
Now, to the dance. The music for the Victorian waltz was quick and remained so well into the late, great 20th Century. It rotates primarily clockwise and ideally should travel in a counterclockwise direction around the dance floor. Couples remain in a closed dance position throughout the dance.
The dance remained that way well into the 1930s when American dance masters slowed the music, which allowed for the introduction of new figures to sell to students and broke the mold of the old, hoary Victorian waltz. However, that was far in the future for "cowboy waltzing."
There are volumes written about dance etiquette, however, for now we'll just talk about the technique and style of the Victorian waltz. I'll start with a few basic rules:
First: TAKE OFF YER SPURS! No one with an ounce of brains or courtesy would attempt to dance on a crowded dance floor with spurs on. Spurs can trip up the wearer as well as anyone who gets too close and woe to the cowboy whose spurs get caught up in fair lady's sweeping skirts. At an Old California fandango, a vaquero indicated that he wished to join in a dance by removing his spurs and placing them on his saddle horn. You'd be wise to do likewise.
Next: HOLD ON TO HER LIKE YA LIKE 'ER! Gents should hold the lady with his right hand behind her back at shoulder blade level, right thumb vertical along the inside edge of her left shoulder blade. Spread the fingers out to give her a wide support across her back. This is the man's major support and "steering device." The other hands, joined comfortably away from the opposite shoulder, simply act as support. Remember: the man sets the movement and the lady "interprets" the movement. Gents, your task is to display your partner and keep her safe. She'll love you for it.
Next: The lady should be close enough that the man's right wrist is straight, with his right arm rounded and horizontal. Right knees should be between your partner's knees, right foot between your partner's feet.
Next: The lady should place her left hand on the shelf behind the man's right shoulder and apply just enough pressure down on his right arm to feel the lead. DO NOT PRESS DOWN! That's your partner's gun arm and you can cause severe fatigue in the shoulder muscle, leading to missed targets and all the grief that goes with that.
Next: MEN START WITH YOUR BACK TO THE CENTER OF THE ROOM AND STEP BACKWARD ON THE LEFT FOOT WITH A QUARTER TURN RIGHT! It was (and is) considered rude and potentially dangerous to start the lady backward when she's wearing floor-length skirts. One can only imagine the embarrassment of the lady stepping on her skirts and causing either torn fabric or a dangerous fall or both. By moving backward first, the man moves the woman forward and starts the skirt to swirl out of the way. During the Ragtime Era of the early 20th Century, Irene Castle of the famous dance team decided to shorten her skirts. Vernon Castle promptly started moving her backward and women have been dancing backward ever since.
Next: Think of the waltz as being backward and forward, rather than a sideways movement. The man steps backward a very small step on the left foot while turning his upper body to the right and bringing his partner toward him (the lead comes before the step). The lady follows by stepping forward on her right foot between her partner's feet. Both then pivot clockwise and step sideways on the free foot, then in place with the first foot. Then the process is reversed, with the woman stepping backward on her left foot and the man stepping forward on his right foot BETWEEN HER FEET with a quarter turn right. More anguish is caused here than anywhere else. You actually want to cross legs at the knees, stepping on your own centerline; it's the only place you know your partner's foot isn't.
Ideally, each three-count waltz step should make a half turn, partners facing either in or out of the circle on the closing step. Think: a quarter turn backward plus a quarter turn pivot sideways and close; repeat continuing forward side close. However, this is a difficult turn requiring considerable practice. Until you're ready to do it, it's best to remain in the center of the room and do the turn with less than a half turn per measure. Just keep the steps small and think: "Backward and Forward."
Just as in normal walking, you have to be a little off-balance to dance any spinning dance. You do know that you have to be off balance to walk, don't you? By learning to use the idea of imbalance and counter balance, you can make the waltz into your own little piece of cowboy / cowgirl heaven. Man and woman take turns sharing the pulse of the dance and there are few dances that can compare.
Used with permission of the author, Richard Duree.
Published in the September, 2005 Cowboy Chronicle
for members of the Single Action Shooting Society