The destruction of the Viennese Waltz

By November 13, 2015Competitions, General

One of the issues we face as dancers and dance teachers here on the west coast of the continent is a lack of exposure to the highest level of standards so easily seen in other parts of the world. Rarely do we get to see the best couples perform. SnowBall Classic is a great annual event that brings significant numbers of these top national champions to compete, giving us an opportunity to see some of the improvements and characteristics that, as dancing evolves, we should be working on.

The 2015 SnowBall Classic event, held in Vancouver two weeks ago, featured the World Cup Ten Dance Championships, bringing top couples from a number of countries.

Only two things marred an otherwise spectacular event. One was the nauseating politics, with relentless promotion of WDSF every 90 seconds for days on end. The other was the destruction of the beautiful Viennese Waltz. The first I can live with. The second, not so much.

Two organizations. Two world views.

SnowBall Classic is a WDSF event. As you may know, there are two competing organizations governing dance competitions worldwide. The World DanceSport Federation runs many competitions and is entirely focused on developing the athleticism of ballroom dancing with the ultimate goal of having it accepted as an Olympic sport. The World Dance Council (WDC), on the other hand, is interested in preserving the quality of movement in ballroom dancing as well as holding at bay the inevitable restrictions that come with worldwide control by any one organization.

In Canada, amateur dance associations are aligned with the WDSF while most of the country’s professionally certified teachers are aligned with the WDC.

They are different organizations, with different goals and objectives. You can be a fan of either or both of them. Both are committed to developing dance but in different ways. I personally appreciate the history and quality of ballroom dancing. I believe it should evolve and grow but that we need to be careful not to lose the characteristics that make dancing beautiful. As a result, I’ve chosen to align myself with the WDC while I appreciate the value that the WDSF has added to ballroom dancing around the world. I need to be clear that while I favor the WDC, I am not advocating against the WDSF. In fact, my Standard coach is a renowned world-class WDSF coach and adjudicator. He is making me a better dancer and teacher.

Naturally, as a WDSF competition, the level of athleticism at SnowBall was high. I was pleased to see that some of the excesses I’ve observed the past couple years were not as evident. The outrageous back stretches ladies were performing last year, where they reached almost to the floor, were pretty much gone. Such things destroy the harmony of two bodies working together and have no place in this kind of dancing.

I saw superb development in the use of dynamic energy. Some of it was excessive in my view, but for the most part it was quite beautiful. Couples were superbly grounded. They used the natural forces of gravity and body flight while applying centrifugal and centripetal energy in rotation to make large movement look effortless. The international champions put North American dancers to shame (except for a few like our Canadian Champions who won the Ten Dance competition) with their level of movement and control.

But one dance has deteriorated so badly it was no longer even recognizable.

The decline of the Viennese Waltz

When I first began to dance I attended a SnowBall Classic event. It was my first live competition and the dance that captured my attention more than any other was the Viennese Waltz. All those couples swirling around and around in seeming unison with the ladies attired in spectacularly colorful ballgowns was a mesmerizing sight. Every once in a while a couple would move to the center of the floor and perform a step called a “Fleckerl” in which they whirled around rapidly in one spot before rejoining the elegant circle moving around the outside of the floor.

When watching my first live competition, the dance that captured my attention more than any other was the Viennese Waltz.

There was fluidity to it. There was light and dark and musicality and consistency and elegance and flow and even to a new dancer it was absolutely beautiful.

The Viennese Waltz we were subject to at this year’s SnowBall Classic had none of those qualities. It was a hodge podge mess. There was no rhythm. No musicality. No consistency. No purpose. Couples would dance two or three natural or reverse turns then stop to create a line for no apparent reason. The result was a pointless exercise that contributed nothing to the world of ballroom dancing. None of it related to the music or character of Viennese Waltz. It didn’t even have entertainment value. It was excruciating to watch.

Why these changes?

A few years ago, the WDSF decided the Viennese Waltz was boring and decided to create new steps to liven it up. The Viennese Waltz has simple steps but it is far from boring. These kind of sudden changes without sufficient regard for the character of the dance are exactly what so many professionals are worried about! These variations have not improved Viennese Waltz. They are an exercise designed to create more work for coaches with no benefit to the dance community.

With its simple steps and consistent patterns, the Viennese Waltz embodies in a single dance everything that makes ballroom dancing so beautiful. Couples are dancing together in greater unison than in any of the other dances. While some may be turning left while others are turning right and still others are changing from one direction to the other, the movement still has harmony because of the consistency of the steps themselves. The flow of the dance around the room is perfectly matched to the music. The best dancers will time their changes to the phrasing of the music, making it even more beautiful.

Unfortunately, the new steps now being advocated by the WDSF break all of those qualities.

Not the first historical distortion

The Viennese Waltz was under attack before. In essence this dance is the original ballroom dance. In the 1700’s huge European dance halls filled with thousands of participants dancing the Viennese Waltz to live bands led by such legends as Johann Strauss. As younger participants embraced the dance, it became quite out of control as couples tried to dance ever-more-rapid rotations and added lifts. It was gradually tamed. Eventually the Slow Waltz evolved from the Viennese Waltz.

In the early 1950’s the dance was almost struck from the competitive field. Britain ruled the ballroom dance world in those days and few British couples performed the Viennese Waltz. Those who did had no standards to follow and made up their own steps and technique. Steps were borrowed from other dances — even ballet — and became a mess of styles as standards of quality were lost.

Coming to the rescue was German champion Paul Krebs.

Born in Germany, Paul was distraught that such a classic dance was being distorted so badly and might lose its influence in the dance world. In 1955, performing with his wife and dance partner Margit Nigl, the five-times German Champions presented the Viennese Waltz to the British Dance Council in a special lecture. The result was so beautiful that it was quickly embraced by the leading professionals. The Krebs continued to travel for years afterward preserving the beauty of this dance by showing professionals around the world how it should look and teaching proper technique. The distorted variations were soon ousted and the simple steps became a standard that have stood the test of time until just three years ago.

I like stylistic freedom where it doesn’t contradict logic. But it’s my belief that the essence of this dance lies in the rotary/swinging action, and only gets watered down by too many figures and poses.
—5-time German Champion Paul Krebs

As quoted in Brigitt Mayers’ “Ballroom Icons,” Paul Krebs explains, “I like stylistic freedom where it doesn’t contradict logic. But it’s my belief that the essence of this dance lies in the rotary/swinging action, and only gets watered down by too many figures and poses.”

Well said. I find no beauty in this new Viennese Waltz. We can only hope that common sense prevails and the dance returns to its classic form.

About George Pytlik

George Pytlik is a is a professionally certified ballroom dance instructor teaching group classes and private lessons with his wife Wendy in the Greater Vancouver area of BC, Canada.

2 Comments

  • Matthew kranenburg says:

    Hello
    What a fine way to wake up . I am an amateur 10 dancer. And while will never become a TOP dancer love to think I am at a reasonable level. The VW is the most difficult if dances to perfect with the elements that make it so graceful. But with the dance world fighting to be in control I still wonder if they both care about the couples or themselfs .
    We dance in the senior compitition and noticed that couples are now having an influence on who can enter the compititions so changing the atmosphere
    Of course the dance levels change but a flood of international dancers makes the others think twice next time.. The lesser standard that have fought and fought to become better get swept away by couples that have the time to train almost 24/7
    All the things I lernt that’s made a dancer of me are still there but the WDSF and the WDC DO not think to help the dancers … Instead they put on what they think is a wonderful event at a cost… US

    • George Pytlik says:

      The VW is challenging, though I think it pales in comparison to the Slow Foxtrot. As a teacher, I find the most difficult aspect is that of dragging the edge of the foot on step 3. Most dancers miss that, resulting in a lightness above the floor that causes them to bounce up slightly as they close their feet. Dragging the foot keeps you grounded, slowing the closing action and helping your movement remain calm and smooth.

      As to the politics, I believe both organizations are interested in the dancers, but in different ways. The WDSF is so focused on the Olympics that it tends to be very heavy on rules and regulations, losing sight of how this affects dancers. An interesting contrast is to look at the result of any Annual General Meeting. When you look at the minutes of a WDSF AGM, everything is focused on regulations. There is little or no mention of dancing itself or quality of movement. The minutes of a WDC AGM tends to have quite a bit of content showing concern about dance technique or issues affecting technique. That’s why I prefer the WDC. I believe its interest in quality is genuine and that focus on dancing extends to the dancers. Having said that, I know that many of those in the WDSF are also concerned with quality. But the administration seems more concerned about governance than anything else. Which I guess is fine if you’re into that stuff. It’s not for me.

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