Dances with Style! – Waltz

What is Stylized Dance?

Sometimes music makes us want to tap our toes and move our feet – especially if that music is a dance! In classical music, the word dance can mean the steps that dancers make while dancing, but it can also mean music written to go along with dance steps.  

Classical music is full of dances that people used in history for actual dancing. Those kinds of dances are called social dance.  But that’s not the only kind of dance in classical music! Composers throughout history loved the sound and feel of dance so much that they also wrote stylized dances, which are musical pieces based on the idea of dance, but which weren’t meant for people to literally dance along.  

You can think of it this way:

Social dance is dance for moving, and stylized dance is dance for listening!

Or try this:

Social dance is dance for your body, and stylized dance is dance for your ears! 

Here’s another way to think of it:

In stylized dance, a composer puts their own unique style into a musical dance!

Let’s explore some stylized dances from history. First, we’ll look at the social dance version of each dance: its basic rhythm and emotion, and how people danced to it. Then we’ll look at stylized versions of each dance, and see what unique style each composer put into each dance! 

We’re going to use some special musical terms to talk about the nuts and bolts of dance music. To take a deep dive into the words we use to talk about music, check out ICAN’s series, The Shape of Music! 

As we explore these dances, remember one important thing: whether it’s a social dance or a stylized dance, if you feel like dancing along, then dance! 


The waltz is a social dance that popped up in German-speaking countries in the nineteenth century. It quickly took Europe and America by storm, and it’s still a popular ballroom dance today! In a waltz, couples dance in elegant circles while holding each other. In fact, the word “waltz” comes from a German word that means “to revolve” or “to turn!”  

It’s not too hard to recognize a musical waltz when you hear one. It always has a triple meter, which means that it’s in ¾ time: the beats travel in groups of threes. There’s always an emphasis on the downbeat, which is the first beat of each measure. A lot of waltzes use flowing melodies over an accompaniment that sounds like “OOM-pah-pah, OOM-pah-pah!”  

In this video, couples dance a waltz in a style that was popular in 19th-century Vienna, Austria. They’re dancing to a waltz called “The Artist’s Life” by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899). He was one of the most popular social dance composers of his time! You’ll hear a slow introduction, during which the couples prepare to dance. After that, listen for the “OOM-pah-pah” to begin, as the couples start whirling in a waltz! 

The waltz became a favorite for stylized dance music in the nineteenth century. Composers wrote stylized waltzes for piano, for orchestra, even for singers! This waltz is by the Venezuelan composer and pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). She named it after her daughter Teresita: it’s called “Mi Teresita” (My Teresita). 

Composers still write stylized waltzes all the time! Here’s one by living composer, Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962). It’s from a collection called Southern Harmony, which she calls “a portrait of the south, where I grew up.” She calls this piece “Gentle Waltz.” Like many stylized dances, it would be hard to actually dance a whirling waltz-step to this music. Instead, it captures the sweet and exciting emotions of dancing. 

Learn More

To learn more about stylized dances and composers who wrote them, check out the links throughout this article! 

You can also read more about the terms in this article by looking them up in Britannica Kids, or check out Music and How It Works from DK! Older kids can check out definitions in books like The Oxford Dictionary of Music or The Harvard Dictionary of Music. You can look for these books at your local library!