The Viennese Waltz is a dance performed to music with three beats to the bar. This means that if a step is taken on each beat, then each bar starts with the opposite foot to that of the previous bar. This can be a source of great difficulty for the beginner, but when mastered gives the dance a delightful romantic lilt.
The first record of a dance to 3/4 rhythm is a peasant dance of the Provence area of France in 1559, as a piece of folk music called the Volta, although the Volta has also been claimed to be an Italian folk dance at this time. The word "volta" means "the turn" in Italian. Thus, even in its earliest days, the dance appears to have involved the couple turning as they danced.
During the 16th Century, the Volta became popular in the royal courts of Western Europe. Arbeau describes it as like a Galliard (done to 3/2 music) but done to slow 6/4 music. Actually both it and the Galliard had 5 steps to 6 beats (and hence also alternated feet in alternate measures). The Volta required the partners to dance in a closed position but with the lady to the left of the man! The man held the lady about the waist, and the lady put her right arm on the man's shoulders, and held her skirt with her left. This was necessary to stop it flying up, because the dance involved the man lifting the lady using his left thigh under the lady's right thigh. Glynis Johns playing the part of Mary Tudor performs this dance in the movie "The Sword and the Rose". A famous illustration of this dance is a contemporary painting said to be of "Queen Elizabeth I doing a leaping turn of the 'Volta', assisted by Earl of Leicester" (at Penshurst Place, Kent). This ascription is probably facetious, as the painting appears to be from the French Valois court.
The Volta appears to be similar to a present day Norwegian Waltz folkdance. As in any turning dance, as the couple perform their step around their partner, they have to take a larger than usual step to get from one side of their partner to the other. In this Norwegian Waltz, the man assists the lady to do this by lifting her into the air as she takes this step (thus neatly accommodating the general difference in leg length of the partners).
In order to do this in the Volta, the partners had to hold each other in such a close embrace that many declared it immoral. Louis XIII (1601-1643) had it banned from court on this account.
Therefore, although the Volta may have originally been in 3 time, it evolved to be in 5 time. One of the first published dances in 3 time was "Hole in the Wall" published by Playford in 1695.
In 1754 the first music for the actual "Waltzen" appeared in Germany. Any connection between the Waltzen and the Volta remains obscure, except that the word "waltzen" in German also means "to revolve".
In 1799 Arndt wrote that: "the dancers grasped the long dresses so that it would not drag or be trodden upon, and lifted it high holding them like a cloak which brought both bodies under one cover, as closely as possible against them". Thus the Waltzen also attracted moral criticism, with Wolf publishing a pamphlet in 1797 entitled "Proof that Waltzing is a main source of weakness of the body and mind of our generation".
Nevertheless, the dance became very popular in Vienna, with large dance halls being opened to accommodate the craze: Zum Sperl in 1807, and the Apollo in 1808 (said to be able to accommodate 6,000 dancers). In 1812 the dance was introduced into England under the name of the German Waltz. It caused a great sensation, and Lord Byron when he first saw it, found his lady friend clasped closely by "a huge hussar-looking gentleman, turning round and round to a confounded see-saw, up-down sort of turn like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin".
Through the 19th Century, the dance stabilized, and was further popularised by the music of Josef and Johann Strauss.
The Viennese Waltz is danced at a tempo of about 180 beats per minute, with a limited range of figures: Change Steps, Hesitations, Hovers, Passing Changes, Natural and Reverse Turns, Fleckerls, Pivots, and the Contracheck.