What Is The Waltz & How Did This Beautiful Dance Develop?

Couple dance the Viennese waltz
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Ah, the waltz! The waltz is a fantastic dance that is widely popular across the world whether it’s danced socially, performed as a couple’s first wedding dance, or danced competitively on the international stage. 

That’s all the more reason you should learn about it.

We’ll explore what makes a waltz a waltz, the different types of waltz that are danced around the world, and a brief history of the waltz. The goal of this article is to get you familiar with the broad idea and background of waltzing so you can be even more confident and knowledgeable when you walk into that waltz class or step out on that dance floor.  

Defining the Waltz: Music, Moves, Motion

They say it takes two to tango, but it also takes two to waltz. The waltz is a partner dance which is made up of a pair divided into a leader and a follower. At its core, the waltz is based on cooperation. Working together allows couples to soar across the floor and execute beautiful movements with flourish and flair.

As with many partner dances discussed on this website, the leader in the waltz partnership will guide the follower by initiating moves and the follower will continue the dance by following and carrying these steps to completion. 

The next defining part of a waltz after the partnership is the music that it’s performed to. Waltz music is danced to music that is in ¾ time. Depending on the type of waltz this music might be fast or slow, but it will always have a ¾ signature. 

Here’s an example of slow waltzing music and some amazing competitors dancing International style waltz. 

Here’s an example of a much quicker waltz, done in Viennese style. This video is a performance so there are some liberties taken as to what might be strictly Viennese, but it’s still super fun to watch.

You can also listen to some waltz songs here

Then, following this music timing, the waltz basic step is performed as a slow-quick-quick (counted one, two, three). The dancers will do a long sliding step on the slow, followed by the quick quick. 

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But it’s not just the partnership, music, and steps that define the waltz; it’s also the overall motion dancers create—and there’s more than one.

First, there is the motion within the partnership, which is characterized by a rising and falling on different beats. This is a natural movement created by the dancers bending their knees during the “fall.” They fall when they take the wide sliding step and rise when they step together on the quick-quick.

Then there is the motion the waltz creates around the floor. The waltz is a traveling dance, meaning the partners are stepping in space, but they are also rotating and moving around the floor. 

There can be exceptions to this rule of movement. For example, a waltz might be performed in place on a crowded floor or with a more basic box step instead of the turning box. But one of the things that draws people to the waltz and helps people identify it is the beautiful sweeping movements that couples make as they whirl around the floor.

The Different Types of Waltz, From Viennese to Country Western

There are several types of waltz that have formed throughout history and found worldwide popularity. We’ll define some of the most popular types below, including American, International, Viennese, and country western style waltz.  

Before getting into the different types of waltz, there’s one very important thing to know: there is often a big difference between competition or performance style waltz and the waltz that is danced socially. 

Competition and performance style waltz often refers to international and Viennese style waltzes, and sometimes refers to American or country western style. When dancing waltz in competition, the style is typically much stiffer and has a much more rigid form. When dancing the waltz socially, many of the highly technical framing and posture aspects will be relaxed and you might see a mix of different waltz styles brought together in one song. 

So if you learn one style of waltz, but it looks different on the social dance floor versus the waltz competition videos you might come across on YouTube, that’s okay. As long as the partners are both having fun and working together, it’s a waltz worth dancing.

Now, let’s take a look at the different types of waltz.

American style waltz alternates between closed and open positions, and is a popular favorite for social dancing. There are also opportunities to compete in this dance, and it can be very fun to perform a choreographed waltz routine in this style because it has so many movements and variations available. 

International waltz, however, is always performed in closed position. I is a favorite for competitions because it is highly standardized with rigorous specifications. 

You could definitely socially dance International style instead of American. But American style may be more comfortable for partners who are strangers because it gives you periodic breaks from the closed embrace as you do different moves. 

Viennese waltz stands out from the other waltzes described in this section for its tempo. It is danced at a very rapid pace. And unlike the other forms of waltz where the ballroom frame is helpful but not always necessary to have fun with the dance, if you don’t have a good frame in Viennese, it will be very difficult to maintain this dance. 

Viennese is my personal favorite type of waltz because if it’s danced well it feels like you’re flying. But it is much less common in a social dance setting because it isn’t taught as often to non-competitive dancers. Plus, it can be exhausting to dance socially because it’s so fast. 

Country western waltz is most common to country western scenes and competitions, and isn’t seen as often at a ballroom competition or social dances. It has several defining characteristics. First, its normally danced to country music instead of classical style music. The intermediate tempo of the dance is quicker than American or International style but slower than Viennese. When moving around the floor, there are also often more linear movements in this waltz than in the other waltzes.

Country western and American style waltz share many similarities, so they may often look interchangeable. But listen to the music and look out for those cowboy boots—they are a dead giveaway!

Middle-aged couple smile while dancing the waltz outside

The Origins of the Waltz: A Very Brief History

The waltz has a rich history as a folk dance that transitioned throughout the years from a contra dance formation to its own standalone partner dance.

It originated as a group of peasant dances in 17th century Austria and Bavaria. Yet for the first 200 years of waltz history, there were many moral outrages against the waltz in different countries around the world. As with many partner dances, it was seen as a dance that would corrupt the foundations of society.

But it gradually became adopted by German high society, then French society, and then American and British society. Several different types spun off the first types of waltz and gave rise to the different waltzes we looked at above.

Today, the waltz is one of the gold standards for ballroom dancing. It is widely popular in social and competitive circles, not to mention as a performance dance.  

How to Learn the Waltz

So you’ve reached the end of the article, learned about what a waltz is, some of the different types of waltz, and some background on how the waltz came around. What now?

If you’re interested enough to give waltzing a shot, how would you go about learning this dance? Well, if times were normal, I would encourage you to check out your local ballroom. You could take a free beginner lesson or sign up for a beginner course in ballroom dancing or waltz fundamentals. 

Then, whether it’s your first or 50th lesson, I would tell you to hop onto that social dance floor and waltz your heart out. The best way to learn any dance is with a great teacher and then plenty of practice. 

But, alas, times are not normal and for many of us, partner dancing is neither permitted nor responsible. So, I say turn to the internet! You’ve already learned about what a waltz is online, so why not learn how to actually waltz online?

There are plenty of free or paid videos made by dance teachers the world over. All you need is a little bit of space and any device that connects to the internet. Even if you don’t have a partner to dance with you can still learn the solo movements of the lead or follow roles, and be ready once dancing opens up again.

To kickstart your foray into learning to dance online, here’s a four-minute YouTube video that teaches the waltz basic box step:


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Miriam Barnes writer

Miriam Barnes

Miriam is a passionate social and competitive dancer turned freelance writer. She uses her background in health and wellness, her B.S. in kinesiology, and her experience in the dance world to create high-quality content for a variety of needs. Miriam’s greatest dreams involve professional dancing, traveling the world, and writing full-time. You can learn more about her and her services on her website: miriambarnes.com. Or you can connect with her on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter,  and Instagram.