Varsoviana / Varsovienne

(Varsovianna, Varsouvianna,
Varsouviana, Varsouvienne, La Va)



The Varsoviana or Varsovienne* is an "graceful and elegant" dance in 3/4 time which is characterized primarily by the regular inclusion of a pause with pointed feet (as illustrated above). Aside from the characteristic pause, the steps are mostly a combination of Polka Redowa and Mazurka.

* These two names are used in an equal number of sources. The other spellings (and one abbreviation) in parentheses above are less common.

The exact origin of the Varsoviana is unknown. The name Varsoviana refers to Warsaw, Poland, but I haven't seen any indication that the dance actually originated there (it's more likely one of many examples of 19th century dances that were named after places). According to Allen Dodworth, it was first seen in Paris, and he claims to have taught it as early as 1853 [AD85]. (I say "claims to" because this claim wasn't made until thirty years later.) A few newspaper advertisements for classes in the dance appeared in 1854, but it wasn't until 1855 until it became widely known (at least in print).

Two years later, in 1857, J. Albert Jarvis wrote that the Varsoviana was "at the present time one of the most popular dances ever introduced, and, although not patronised by the aristocracy, is, nevertheless, a very graceful and elegant dance, and of the Mazourka character, departing only from the Mazourka at the pause, which should not be too long, or in any way extravagant" [JJ57].

But only a few years later, W. H. Basley wrote that "the Varsoviana was a very simple, easy dance, but such unwarrantable liberties were taken with it, and so vulgarly was it performed by the mass, that its existence was very brief, and is now only thought of as a thing of the past" [WB60]. Frederick Warne's Ball Room Companion of 1866 noted that "this dance is seldom danced now, though it formerly had a sort of ephemeral popularity. We always considered it as rather a boisterous sort of performance, and more suitable for the casino than the private ball-room" [FW66].

So what was it exactly that transformed this "graceful and elegant" dance from "one of the most popular dances ever introduced" to a "vulgar," "boisterous" one unsuitable for the ballroom?

Read on to find out. (Or if you'd rather just see the steps, click here.)

The Vulgar Varsoviana

One potential issue is that already identified by Jarvis: the characteristic pause, which in Jarvis' words, "should not be too long." While a short pause of one bar seems innocent enough to us today, it may not have been seen that way in the 19th century.

In The Dance of Society (1875), William De Garmo writes, "It is in bad taste to remain standing in waltz position waiting for the commencement of a strain of music, and much worse to let it go by and still stand in position waiting for another strain. The position should be taken and the dance begun at the same moment." While this advice specifically applies to the start of a dance, if standing around in waltz position was frowned upon, that doesn't bode well for a dance where 25% to 50% of the dance is standing around in waltz position.*

* As an interesting side note, standing around in waltz position caused several other moral panics in the following century, with dances like Tango (or worse, the Bunny Hug) in the 1910s, and with teenagers in the 1950s who tried to get away with moving as little as possible without getting reprimanded by the chaperones at their school dances.

Another issue arises not from the pause, but from the order of the steps themselves. As you'll see below, while every source we have described the Varsoviana as a sequence of steps, more than 30 different sequences of steps were described (and this isn't even counting stylistic differences, of which there were many more). While one teacher said that it was one step for 8 bars, followed by another step for 8 bars, another teacher said that it was 16 bars of the second step followed by 16 bars of the first step, while a third teacher said that there was a sequence of three steps instead of two. While this is unlikely to ruffle our feathers today—it sounds a lot like freestyle social dancing—it probably wouldn't have been seen that way at the time.

For example, in its description of the Varsoviana, Dick's Quadrille Call Book (1878) noted that "The music is always especially adapted to the dancers, and, when performed correctly by all the couples on the floor, has a very pretty appearance. The effect is too often marred by a few couples who persist in dancing a Redowa or Hop Waltz, instead of the right figure, entirely destroying the general character of the dance, and throwing the rest into confusion by their erratic intrusion" [DF78]. Note the use of the singular in the phrase "the right figure," as if there was only one.

Others expressed their displeasure at the lack of uniformity on the dance floor as well. For example, in discussing the closely related Polka Redowa, William De Garmo wrote, "It does not follow that because the dancers keep time they are executing the proper step. For example: while a Polka-Mazurka is being played, one couple may dance the Polka-Mazurka, a second couple the Polka-Redowa, a third the Galop à Trois Pas, a fourth a slow Redowa, a fifth a slow Waltz, and a sixth the Glide Waltz." This critical comment tells us two important things: first, that the dancers of the day were fine with mixing steps on the dance floor, and second, that (at least some) dance masters were not.

The Varsoviana in particular presented an additional challenge in this regard. As we saw above, "the music is always especially adapted to the dancers." Glancing through the music we have for the dance, we can see that the pauses were clearly written into the music, with different pieces of music adapted to different sequences of steps.

For example, here are two excerpts from Jullien's Warsaw Varsoviana. From a quick glance at the music, we can immediately tell that the first piece is intended to have one bar of dancing followed by a pause, and the second piece is intended to have three bars of dancing followed by a pause.

Conveniently, Jullien's Varsoviana is structured the same way as Coulon's description of the dance which accompanies it: 1+1 for 16 bars, then 3+1 for 16 bars.

Allen Dodworth's 1st Varsoviana, on the other hand, is structured as 1+1 for 8 bars, then 3+1 for 8 bars, which, conveniently, matches the structure of Dodworth's figure.

If you mix and match the music and figures, however, the result is musical calamity: there will be musical pauses when the dancers aren't pausing, and dancers pausing while the music continues. Once again, this isn't a problem today: in the 21st century, dancers regularly play with musicality, rather than slavishly following every beat. But as we saw before, (at least some) dance masters in the 19th century frowned upon varying the figure, even if you were keeping time. How must they have felt if you weren't even keeping time?

Despite these challenges, the "vulgar" Varsoviana persevered. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "the report of its death had been grossly exaggerated." Long after Basley and Warne eulogized it, new descriptions of the dance were still being written, with even more sequences of steps. And new music for the dance was also being written, right up until the turn of the 20th century. While it certainly wasn't the most popular dance of the century, it was among those with lasting appeal.

Here are some of the many ways to dance it:

The Dance

Most descriptions of the Varsoviana are combinations of four basic parts, each 8 bars in length:

These four parts were described as being combined in wide a variety of ways: In addition, several other completely different versions were described:

The Music

For a list of twenty-five 19th century Varsovianas with free downloads of the sheet music, see Varsoviana Music.


© 2015, 2019 Nick Enge

For more, see our two books on dancing:
Waltzing: A Manual for Dancing and Living (2013) by Richard Powers and Nick Enge,
and Cross-Step Waltz: A Dancer's Guide (2019) by Richard Powers and Nick & Melissa Enge.

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