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The Varsovienne
By Arthur Leon Moore, 1947

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Varsovienne Drawing While it is a well-known fact that folk dances have a way of travelling from one country to another – and after each country it appears in claiming it for it's own – it would be hard to find a dance with more claimants than the Varsovienne. It's name suggests a possible Warsaw origin, in fact Mrs. Lilly Grove in her book "Dancing" (1895), under "The Dances of Poland," and in "The Redowa and the Varsoviana belong also to Poland," and in "The Oxford Companion to Music" we read, "Varsovienne. Originally a dance of Warsaw, a sort of mazurka which was popular in the ballrooms about 1850-70." And Lloyd Shaw in his book "Cowboy Dances" says, "perhaps the most delightful of all the round dances is the Varsovienne. It originated in Warsaw, Poland," (How positive he is!) "and from that city, with a few accidents or orthography, it took its name. The dance spread all over Europe and took on different national characteristics. It moved on to the West, it's name corrupted to Varsouvianna, and is a regular feature of our old-time dances." (So easy is oral corruption, I have heard it unsmilingly called Varsity Anna.) On asking a Polish specialist in Polish dances, however, who taught them in Poland, about this dance she assured me she "had never heard of it among Polish dances."

Another story of the origin of its' name places it Italian. This time by Brooks in his "Modern Dancing" (1867), he says: "The Varsovienne as originated by an Italian in 1850, who called it La Versuvianna in honor of Mount Vesuvius!"

The one discoverable reference to it as of Spanish origin appears in Desrats' "Dictionaire de la Danse" (1895), where he says, "The Varsovienne (Varsoviana). A modern dance in the form of the waltz, composed about 1853-54 by a young Spanish professor, Francisco Alonzo, who wrote both the dance and the music of the Varsovienne and produced it at the ancient public ball in Chausee d'Antin." In Groves "Dictionary of Music and Musicians" (1935), we find a "probable" French origin. He says: "Varsovianna . . . probably of French origin, and seems to have been introduced by a dancing master named "Desire" in 1853. Somewhat later it was much danced at the Tuileries balls and is said to have been a favorite with the Empress Eugenie."

In the East we dance it not only with the New Englanders, whose style follows mostly that of the Swedes, whose form of it was that which we danced in the 80s and 90s, but even with the Swedes themselves and the Norwegians too, while in the West we have the Spanish version; more a matter of style than steps . . .

In its "simplest form," it is in two sections, varying in different versions as to repetitions and alternations, while the waltz part is a third part in the Swedish version . . . so how about the Swedes? How old is it with them? How did they get it? Thus far, no Swedish friend of mine, nor any book has been able to enlighten me on this matter, and the authoritative (!) bibliographies on music invariably refer to it as a Swedish dance, and the books referred to by them (Swedish dance collections) merely give descriptions and music with nothing about its origin.

These various dates are close enough to indicate that somewhere in the 1850s, a dance known as the Varsovienne (however spelled!) became popular in European ballrooms; that a description of the dance, though variously referred to as "a form of the waltz," as "a sort of mazurka," as "resembling the polka," was apparently of the same dance; a two-part dance with the characteristics having been sympathetically observed by the country folks, taken to their more simple dance gathering, and made their own.

Like the Polka, the Varsovienne spread rapidly over Europe and on to America. In his "Art of Dancing" (1859), Ferrero says of it: "This dance combines the mazurka, polka, and polka redowa, is a very graceful dance and in considerable favor. It was introduced into America about five years ago, and is particularly essential for children, who, while learning it's graceful positions, acquire many elegant movements of the body and feet, also a proper regard for musical time." From this we see that it has been nearly a century in the United States, where it is danced with slight (Oh, yeah? ñRod) variations of style and depending on the part of the country one is in.


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