It’s an afternoon rehearsal of My Fair Lady, and waltzing is in the air. Christopher Gattelli, the production’s choreographer, is taking the cast through the dance section of the Embassy Ball scene. The actors clearly enjoy moving around the floor. On a break, I asked Gattelli about his approach. “I’m trying to give the number a lot of variety. With three minutes of a Viennese waltz, you don’t want the movement to become monotonous. You want sophistication, and you want to mix it up.”

So symbolic is the waltz of civilization that it comes as a surprise to learn that it was once considered scandalous -- in England, especially. In 1813, Lord Byron published his poem “The Waltz” anonymously so as not to invite opprobrium, and described the dance form not as rigid and formal but as full of “lewd grasp and lawless contact.” That same year, the diarist Thomas Raikes recounted that “No event ever produced so great a sensation in English society as the introduction of the waltz.” 

Continuing my study of this style of movement, I asked Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic of The New York Times, for his favorite examples of Viennese form. He replied: “Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes and Liebeslieder Waltzer fly immediately to mind, though half of Liebeslieder has the women on point and much of it has some very free elaborations of the waltz; one of the five Vienna dances is a polka.”

When I hear “polka” I used to think of the beer-barrel songs of my small-town, Midwestern youth, and the way that the polka was associated with popular-class entertainment. More recently, I think of it as the dance that the King and Lady Anna do in The King and I to consummate their affection. Choreographer Gattelli links that Rodgers & Hammerstein creation with My Fair Lady. “Neither show,” he explained, “is a strict romance but both involve an intense central emotional connection. The King polkas with Mrs. Anna and Higgins waltzes at the ball with Eliza. The dancing makes it easy to understand why audiences think of both shows as romantic even though neither ends with lovemaking or a wedding.”

Brendan Lemon is the editor of