Meaning in the Twilight Waltz

Don Herbison-Evans

Byrnes Dance Image

You might ask : how can a Ballroom dance have a meaning? How can the New Vogue dance the 'Twilight Waltz' have a meaning? Here I would like to show you some personal views of what this dance can mean, and the variety of feelings that it can evoke as it is danced.

The simplest view of ballroom dances such as the 'Twilight Waltz' is that they are abstract geometric patterns of steps in space and time. There are many types of abstract pattern. They are derived from the simple geometric transformations of contrast, repetition, rotation, and reflection symmetry. In this view, their meaning is the pattern. Patterns are important to us. For example, many people like wallpaper to have a repetitive pattern. We like the human form to have bilateral symmetry, and typically think of unsymmetric forms as unnatural and less than beautiful, but paradoxically: we find beauty in unsymmetric human forms in painting, sculpture, and dance. Maybe this is because the simplest patterns of bilateral symmetry and repetition make a neutral mental backdrop against which deviations from this simplicity can evoke emotion: by allusion, allegory, and metaphor.

But many people like their patterns to have more meaning than this. For example in wallpaper, many people like to have representations of flowers. Then the pattern alludes to other things that we experience in the world, and is no longer just geometry. So the patterns in dance can also be those of abstract geometry in space and time, but also they can carry many other meanings, some simple and obvious, some complex and deep in the subconscious.

Bear in mind that typically, in competition anyway, the man wears a black tail suit, while the lady wears a highly colourful ballgown. The wearing of black by the man is significant. In the Japanese puppet theatre Bunraku, the puppetteers wear black so that the audience may concentrate their visual attention on the puppets that they control. The eye is inclined to avoid looking at black: a black area is a hole in our visual field. So in Ballroom dancing: the man is not to be seen. The visual emphasis is designed to be on the lady. This is described to beginner dancers as : "the man is the frame, the lady is the picture".

The 'Twilight Waltz' begins with a single step over two beats. This step being over two beats draws our attention. In that first step of the 'Twilight Waltz, as in many dances, the lady steps backward, and because of the colours the attention is on the lady. This simple single movement evokes in me a very deep and complex meaning. I feel an allegory of the human condition and our relationship with time, for in time we move forwards facing backwards, because we can only see the past. We can only guess the future. So, depending on how it is danced, this first simple step can immediately evoke feelings of pathos, and belonging.

The first step contains a rise, because the second step for the man is taken on the toe. During that first step: the body decelerates, as the kinetic energy of the intial movement is absorbed by potential energy of the rise. The peak of the rise is a moment of continued acceleration downward, but zero vertical velocity. This paradoxical moment is where the audience can appreciate the meaning in that first step.

Two great American choreographers of the twentieth century have found deep meanings in this rise and subsequent lowering. It is a movement that pervades many Ballroom and New Vogue dances. Doris Humphrey described it as 'suspend and release', with an allusion to the games we play with a ball as children and as adults in sport. Martha Graham described it as 'inhale and exhale'. She saw it as a metaphor for breathing, and hence for life. So that rise through the second beat of the Twilight Waltz can also be felt as a connection back to childhood, and simultaneously as celebration of life.

The next four steps can continue to show a story. The second step is a lowering step preparing for another strong step back for the lady which continues in the next strong step to the side, which ends in another rise as the other foot is closed.

I see the second step as the preparation for this whole sequence, so I like to feel that it is semantically linked to the third step. It is part of the meaning of the third, fourth, and fifth steps, and so I like to take it if anything a little behind the beat, so that it connects kinetically and visually with those subsequent steps rather than the preceding step.

The build up of speed through the second and third steps can be seen perhaps as an acceptance of a challenge, and a determination to travel resolutely into the future despite our inability to see it.

The fourth step to the side can say that we will look at our world despite time flying past us: we will stop and appreciate our surroundings.

This type of side step appears in many of the New Vogue dances, and can be made spectacular by the use of sway. The lady, in stepping to side with her left foot, can impose the sway by abducting the right rather than the left thigh. In this way the whole body from head to left toe continues to make a visual line, making the movement appear effortless. The viewer's eye is inclined to focus on the moving foot, so the effort in the standing leg is hardly perceived. This is the same illusion most strongly characterised in the 'moonwalk' made popular by Michael Jackson, where again the eye is drawn to the wrong foot, making the movement seem paradoxical.

The fifth step has a closing of the foot that was left behind during the sweep of the fourth step. It can pulled in without obvious effort, as part of the rise after the end of the fourth step, where we have a complete stop, for there both vertical and lateral velocity have ceased. But the moment still has life, for a downward acceleration continues, with a compression for the lady of the left leg in preparation for the next dance phrase. But more important visually is a simultaneous change of shape: from stretching the lady's left side in the preceding lateral sweep, to stretching the right side in preparation for the next phrase which commences with the lady's left foot. So here the movement is in the torso itself. The movement is like a living sculpture: fixed in one spot but curving from one shape to another. Perhaps it is like a plant, a flower wafting in a summer breeze. But perhaps it is an allusion to a living animal that is trapped and cannot move from the spot. It has joy and pathos in equal measure.

This next phrase is a step into a half reverse turn ending in an oversway. in which the whole rhythm of the dance changes. In the first four bars, the dancers only take one or two steps per bar. The whole feel of those four bars is languorous and almost relaxed. But in the fifth bar there is a step on every beat. Here I love the contrast, the light and shade, of picking up speed through the reverse turn, followed by a decelleration into the picture of the oversway.

In bars 9 to 16 of the Twilight Waltz, the dancers do essentially the same movements as they do in bars 1 to 8, but they do them against the line of dance, clockwise around the floor. This is fraught with meaning.

In medieval times, round dances were danced clockwise. This is the way the sun moves around the sky in Europe, and so it is the way the gnomon shadow moves around the hourly markers of a sundial north of the equator, hence the term: clockwise. This was considered to be God's way. To go anticlockwise was considered to be the witch's way: and called Widdershins. There were times in history when it was very dangerous to dance Widdershins.

Eventually, practical issues overcame religious ones, and when parading around a room, it was expedient to parade anticlockwise because of the mens' swords. Most men are right-handed, and can draw a sword from its scabbard more easily if the scabbard is on the left hip. So when promenading a lady, she would naturally walk on his right side to avoid tripping on the scabbard. When the couple paraded around the room, the man would be on the inside, again to avoid hitting the legs of onlookers with the scabbard, and of course to show off the lady in her finery. So they would have to parade anticlockwise around the floor.

Of course, in Australia, being south of the equator, the sun and a gnomons shadow travel anticlockwise. One might say that anticlockwise is God's way in Australia, and so we need have no trepidation in dancing this way here. Maybe.

So there are some very subtle and conflicting emotions that can be evoked by simply changing the direction in which we travel around the floor.

To an onlooker, the choregraphy of bars one to sixteen panders to their immediate basic forms of pattern recognition. The movements in bars nine and ten are the spatial mirror image of those in bars one and two, and they are also a direct repetiton of those movements. These are the two basic symmetries that the human brain is programmed to recognise.

An example of this brain programming can be seen in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2

Figure 2 may seem to be a random pattern of dots, but in fact the figure has a structure. It is composed by taking the pattern of dots in the top left quadrant, and repeating that in each of the other three quadrants. The human eye is not programmed to recognise easily this simple repetition.

Figure 3

In Figure 3, the same quadrant of dots in the top left quadrant has been reflected into each of the other quadrants. In this picture, the human eye immediately discerns the symmetry despite the dots in the quadrant being random. The human eye and occipital lobes are programmed to recognise spatial reflection, but not spatial repetition.

This is in complete contrast to how we perceive temporal patterns. If we take a simple rhythmic phrase, such as illustrated in Figure 4,

tum tiddy tum tiddy tum tum
Figure 4

and repeat it again, as in Figure 5,

tum tiddy tum tiddy tum tum tum tiddy tum tiddy tum tum
Figure 5

we can immediately recognise the pattern of repetition. If however we play the repeat backwards as in Figure 6,

tum tiddy tum tiddy tum tum tum tum tiddy tum tiddy tum
Figure 6

so that it is reflected in time, we do not recognise the pattern.

In the Twilight Waltz, we have in the second four bars a lovely example for our pattern recognition systems in both time and in space to say "Aha" and "Aha" simultaneously. A double whammy: Yummee.

Of course, the reflection symmetry is imperfect. The lady would have to step back with the left foot in bar nine for perfect reflection symmetry, and switch arm holds too if one were pedantic, but it is good enought for the double whammy.

Many other New Vogue dances capitalise on this same double whammy. The most perfect example is the first half of the Tracie Leigh Waltz, but other dances indulge these same brain cells: the Gypsy Tap, the Charmaine Schottische, the first four bars of the Merrilyn. One may find examples in parts of many of the dances.

But then in the Twilight Waltz, in bar 16, everything changes. In bar 16 of the Twilight Waltz, the couple exit from their second oversway to take a chasse in an open hold. It is a metamorphosis. The dancing couple come out their closed hold chrysalis, and expose themselves to see and be seen in the world at large.

The closed hold used in bars one to sixteen is essentially boring. All you see are the backs of two people. Even if they each shape to their left. you only see their heads peeking out over the other's shoulder. It is amazing to me that people are interested at all in watching couples dancing in closed hold. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, ladies in closed hold wore 'Bumpers': belts with a spacer bar so as to keep the bodies apart, to avoid sinful contact. The hold is like a private embrace. Perhaps that is its visual appeal, because onlookers have a sense of being voyeurs as they watch a couple in dancing in closed hold. The onlookers perhaps feel this sinful intrusion on the couple's privacy more than the the dancers feel embarrassed at being watched. But in bar 16, all sinful thoughts evaporate as the couple 'come out'.

In bar 17 we have romance. We see a couple holding hands, sharing with the world their joy of being with each other.

In bar 19 they turn to take a back lock in an extended open hold. Here they are looking back together, perhaps saying goodbye to their clandestine closed hold relationship in bars 1 through 16, perhaps travelling into the future with trepidation, with doubt about facing what lies ahead. So in bar 21 they turn to face each other again as though agreeing to take on the future, with all its uncertainty, together.

Then bar 23 is joyous as they turn to face the future full on, holding hands as they travel headlong into the unknown. They accelerate through bars 24 and 25, and fly away in bar 26. Well actually there is an 'aerial' in bar 26: a wafting of the moving leg from behind the body to a curved and lifted position in front of the body, with a simulataneous rising onto the toes of the standing leg. OK: some couples like to feel they are shooting a penalty in a soccer match, but I prefer the aerial to be performed as a metaphor for flight.

After a lady's underarm turn, the dance ends with a sequence of reverse Viennese turns. The choice of 'reverse turns' rather than 'natural turns' for this ending is fascinating. For many years, after the Viennese Waltz became popular in Europe in the 1820's, dancers only did 'natural turns'. This was because, without expert tuition, it is more difficult to negotiate corners if progressing anticlockwise around the dancefloor using 'reverse turns'. It is much easier to underturn a 'natural turn' than to overturn a 'reverse turn'. People who tried to do 'reverse turns' were inclined to get in the way of the other dancers, and it was considered to be a 'faux pas' (bad step) to do this. It took nearly 100 years for the technique to improve and the stigma of 'reverse equals perverse' to fade away.

But by 1944, when John Bartlett choreographed the Twilight Waltz, the natural and reverse turns were on equal footing. In the preceding underarm turn, the lady turns to her left: which is a reverse movement. The subsequent reverse Viennese turns are then simply a continuation of this rotation.

So after the take off into the air at the aerial, the lady's underarm turn is like a swallow chasing mosquitoes, and then the pair continue spinning off, winding their way up into the clouds.

Of course everbody sees a dance differently. The essence of art is to hold a mirror to each separate person's imagination. But I hope some dancers, who thought that Ballroom and New Vogue dancing were just abstract patterns, will now begin to find the dances a richer experience by getting past the geometry, and getting into the meaning.

(written 12 February 2009, revised 2 March 2012)