The Java.

My wife and I watched Une femme mariée last night as part of our ongoing Godard retrospective (it’s very good indeed), and at one point there’s an intertitle LA JAVA which is rendered in the subtitles as THE WALTZ. So just now I looked up java and discovered that my Collins-Robert defines it as “popular waltz,” whereas the very large Larousse gives “java” as though that were an English word. I thereupon checked the OED, and even though the entry was updated in September 2011 it gives no such meaning (only ‘coffee,’ ‘a breed of large domestic fowl,’ and ‘a general-purpose object-oriented programming language used for producing cross-platform programs’). So then I went to Google Books and turned up a bunch of examples in English-language books, but all in the context of French culture: “as dances, we did the one step, foxtrot, java, tango, and waltz”; “the success and institutionalisation of the java/waltz motif”; “For the java – a lumbering waltz that is almost a polka – each partner places his hands at the small of the other partner’s back to form a kind of whirling pretzel”; “This was the dance known as the apache, the java, or, more descriptively, the valse chaloupée (rolling waltz); “Odd, indeed, were he not to play the java, that fast, rural waltz that had become another of the key synonyms for the people”; etc. Here’s a long quotation from Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni (OUP, 2006) that gives some history and provides what is doubtless a folk etymology:

In addition, Vacher played the java, a dance that became the pride of musette. Legend held that the java got its name at Le Rat Mort, a grand bal reigning over place Pigalle. Here, the women were infatuated with the 3/4-time Italian mazurka “Rosina” that they danced in quick, minced steps with their hands planted on their partners’ derrières. Throughout the nights, the dancers demanded the band play “Rosina,” calling out for encores, “Ca va?” which in the Auvergnat accent came across as “Cha va?” Paris woke one morning and a new dance had been born. Yet the debut of a new dance was contentious. Some staunchly Auvergnat bals bore signs proclaiming “The java is forbidden.” Others cursed the java: Louis Péguri said the java was “a dance derived from the waltz but with a step that was debauched and vulgar.” Others decried it succinctly as a mazurka massacrée, whereas Parisian novelist Francis Carco summed up all bal dancing, stating, “Here, dance is not an art.”

The Trésor de la langue française informatisé defines it as “Danse à trois temps, assez saccadée, en vogue dans les bals populaires des faubourgs” and gives its origin simply as “Du nom de l’île de Java.” I’m curious as to whether others are familiar with this apparently once notorious dance and its music; is it still a thing?


  1. I know of the java from several Édith Piaf songs (probably the best known is L’Accordéoniste) but I probably couldn’t pick it out of a bal lineup.

  2. David Marjanović says

    Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend


    I was wondering.

  3. I’m reminded of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise

  4. Ah, yes, I also know it from L’Accordéoniste as well, but Samuel Barnett’s rendition in The History Boys:

  5. I was more puzzled by, “a dance that became the pride of musette.” Presumably the meaning of musette* intended here is (per the OED):

    A pastoral piece of music typically having a drone in the bass part imitating the sound of the bagpipe; a dance performed to such music.

    However, “a dance that became the pride of musette,” still seems ill formed. It is as if musette is supposed to mean “the musette-playing community.” That seems like a standard kind of metonymy, but it still feels inapt, both on general principles and in specifics. On the general side, it simply feels ill formed; it would not sound right to say that a dance became, “the pride of jazz,” would it? (I would suspect that this betrayed some interference from French, except that the author appears to be a native American English speaker.) Specifically, the energetic scene that Dregni describes, and its spatiotemporal setting, hardly seem right for musette as a particular kind of pastoral music. This is, I believe the “Rosina” tune mentioned; it was commonly played on guitar—Django Reinhardt’s instrument—as well as orchestral instruments. However, it would hardly be improved by a baritone drone.

    * The name musette for this kind of music comes from the previous sense of the word, as a term for French bagpipes. There later developed another French instrument by the same name—a recorder-like wind, similar to the chanter of the bagpipe musette..

  6. Presumably the meaning of musette* intended here is (per the OED): A pastoral piece of music

    No, I think it’s the bal-musette.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    No doubt some feel that absolutely any sort of music would be improved by an accompanying baritone (or bass) drone?

  8. the Bread & Puppet Theater’s band has had a java or two in its repertoire over the years – that’s certainly where i first heard of the genre, in the mid-1990s. i assume javas came to B&P through the little cohort of french (mostly parisian) company members who began working with the theater in the 1970s*. they sit cozily in the band’s rep between dixieland tunes, circus fanfares, and klezmer standards: early-20thC popular dance music that plays well at a range of tempos, and that walks the line of sounding familiar enough to u.s. audiences to be comfortable, without being a sonic cliché.

    * two of whom, geneviève and rené, are being memorialized on the farm this summer. it’s been a hard year for the theater, with at least 4 deaths of very longstanding folks from the company.

  9. I’m familiar with the word from Boris Vian’s song La Java des bombes atomiques. It sounds like a moderately rambunctious waltz to me.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    a dance derived from the waltz but with a step that was debauched and vulgar

    This guidance is insufficient for those of us trying to follow along at home.

  11. David Marjanović says

    So I guess the waltz itself wasn’t seen as debauched and vulgar anymore. O tempora, sic transit, et caetera.

  12. David Eddyshaw says


  13. PlasticPaddy says

    The main issue for decency seems to be (a) the place where the man’s hands rest (see photo) and (b) the constrained space, so probably intstead of gliding, you get more bump and grind….

  14. David Marjanović says

    Oh, is that what “the small of the back” means?

  15. Here’s a Youtube clip that gives a good sense of what the dance looked like in practice — On danse la Java:

    The music itself reminds me somewhat of _tango vals_, though the dancing is nothing like it. (Edited to add, here’s an example, the vals starts at 6:55 )

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Et dans les ­arrière-salles de bars malfamés, ou dans les guinguettes au fil de l’eau, il faut slalomer entre les chaises, les tables, les clients.

    Oh. Unfortunately I haven’t got a bar malfamé handy for slaloming in. Something for another day, then. I’ll just stick with the crochet for now.

  17. Here’s a Youtube clip that gives a good sense of what the dance looked like in practice

    Thanks very much!

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks indeed.
    Truly debauched. I am not disappointed,
    Also, special equipment (such as bars malfamés) does not in fact seem to be necessary. This is something one can do in the comfort of one’s own home.

  19. The mention of tango vals attracted my interest but I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Starting from the late 1930s, there was a fashion trend in tango which emphasized fast beats above all, and some valses are beautiful examples of it, one of the most extreme of them being this tune which I often danced to:
    But tango valses generally have gentler melodic layers and sections while java seems to be all fast / angular / chunky, no doubt because it was meant to be executed with some dizzying rolling turns on dirt or concrete floors, rather than on the hardwood floors favored by the real waltz with its pivoting shoes. Maybe vals peruano is more like java in that respect?
    Anyway here is a cool java sampler:

  20. is it still a thing?
    I think a general answer true for all kinds of dancing in pairs using prescribed movements and steps is that they’re not a thing if you mean done by people under 40 (50?) for fun outside small circles of enthusiasts, with the possible exception of Salsa, which I have seen performed by lots of younger persons in significant quantities, but again at special gatherings for that purpose.

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    In Germany I saw youngish people “jiving” (with the clothes), but I agree, these are enthusiasts. I have a feeling that danse rock is a thing in France also….

  22. I think a general answer true for all kinds of dancing in pairs using prescribed movements and steps is that they’re not a thing if you mean done by people under 40 (50?) for fun outside small circles of enthusiasts

    Of course you’re right. I guess I meant “is la java still a part of general cultural awareness?” Sounds like the answer is “yes, sort of.”

  23. David Marjanović says

    under 40 (50?)

    Definitely 50. They’re all still taught in “dance courses” that most people have been to at some point, but not done for fun (apart from the mentioned rare enthusiasts – salsa is no exception).

  24. Stu Clayton says

    but not done for fun

    What evidence do you offer for that claim ? I bet you wouldn’t enjoy it, at any rate I don’t. But that’s insufficient reason to impute this dislike to others.

    If anything I am nowadays glad to see that most other people are not such old grumps as myself. It’s more exciting when I finally find one to exchange frowns with.

    There’s a dance school that Sparky and I pass on the way to his ablution territory. It was one of the first places to reopen after the Great Panjandrum of 2000-2022 in Cologne. People of all ages were swinging and swaying like nobody’s business.

  25. January First-of-May says

    but not done for fun

    My brother found the “historical dance” sessions to be his favorite part of the linguistics course at Sirius, and is very much looking forward to more of them this year.

    I have no idea why they’d do historical dances as part of a linguistics course, but if he likes it, good to him. I agree I probably wouldn’t have.

  26. I wouldn’t have found LH if not for dancing which fired my urge to translate lyrics and trace the travels of the songs across national borders. First Rio Wang and then here. But it’s been posted at LH before.

    So for some people, the “niche dance forms” are primary. And it isn’t a tiny niche by any means if I can get to gatherings with hundreds people, and find like-minded folks every week in virtually every town.

  27. David Marjanović says

    What evidence do you offer for that claim ?

    Almost literally everybody except me dances, and does it for fun; but when I see people dancing for fun (in meatspace or on film), either completely spontaneously or because they went somewhere in order to dance (clubs, festivals, the discos of yore), it’s never “in pairs using prescribed movements and steps”. Even at my sister’s wedding last year few people danced that way.

  28. David Marjanović –
    Obviously you have never been to a party of people from Latin America.

  29. David Marjanović says

    I’ve been at parties with some, actually, but perhaps not a statistically significant sample…

  30. I have a feeling that danse rock is a thing in France also…
    It’s at least the only place where people I know have reported about spotting people dancing rock’n’roll 50s-style in the last 30 years; but even that was in a club for enthusiasts and on a wedding between such enthusiasts. But it seems to be a more popular hobby in France.
    Dancing school
    They still exist, of course, but if they once were a rite of passage almost every European teenager was expected to undergo, they now cater to niches. When I was that age, a significant number of my class mates attended them, although you wouldn’t have guessed from what they danced at school discos (the usual gyrate and bounce free-form solo dancing people nowadays do). I never went to dancing school, due to a combination of awkwardness, health problems and the nearest school being in a town where no public transport went from our village after noon. When my daughter was that age last decade, going to dance school to learn pair dances wasn’t even a thing anymore, although she likes dancing, and went to contemporary dance courses (as in dance art on a scene) at such a dancing school.

  31. Dancing school still seems to be a rite of passage for teens in Vienna, although Hans is correct that you would never guess this from watching them dance in the wild.

    I would suppose that the willingness of young people to invest effort in learning and performing formal dance steps is inversely correlated with society’s toleration of extramarital sexual relations.

  32. David Marjanović says

    a rite of passage for teens in Vienna

    Many parents think so, anyway. Then one or two of the formal dances get applied at the Maturaball (less earth-shattering than an American prom; you don’t even have to show up with a partner) and never again.

    inversely correlated

    Possible, though I can’t see a reason to think the relation is directly causal.

  33. John Cowan says

    You don’t have to show up to a (modern) prom with a partner either, nor do you have to dance. My daughter came alone and spent the entire time hanging out with friends.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Oh, good.

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