Vienna Waltz Season
By Bobbie Leigh
As with love affairs, beginnings are best when it comes to a Viennese ball. That’s because they begin with debutantes, stunningly ethereal in tiaras, elbow length white gloves, and billowing white ball gowns partnered by young men in princely white tie. The young couples waltz to the fast tempos of Strauss performing the most exacting counter-clockwise turns in unison and then show off their classical dance savvy in a mandatory French quadrille.
Important guests or friends of the host organization get to watch the opening ceremonies in a central ballroom. The rest observe the festivities on large TV screens. After the obligatory high-profile speeches, Thomas Schafer Elmayer, the third generation head of the legendary Elmayer Dancing School, proclaims “Alles Walzer,” that is, everybody dance, and suddenly the dance floor is crowded with couples waltzing –- this time clockwise — followed by everything from Strauss to Salsa.
The top billing during ball season, generally November to February, is the Opera Ball held on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday at the gilded, elegant Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera House. Tickets cost 230 euro while a table for six is 960 euro. After the last opera performance, some 300 workers strike the sets and commandeer what must be every palm tree in the city to prepare for the spectacle which is usually broadcast on television
The second best and costing about 110 euro is the Coffee House Owners Ball. It’s no small affair, as there are some 800 Kaffeehauser. Unlike other capitals, Vienna maintains a distinct Baroque personality, especially in its 50 classic coffee houses where waiters still dress in black and the décor —wood floors, marble-topped tables –- is decidedly haute- unpretentious.
When it comes to the ball season, second best does not mean second rate. The Coffee House Owners ball — attended by 6,000 guests in 2010 — was held in the various chandeliered rooms of the sprawling, marbled Hofburg Palace. Even the court palace’s famous Spanish Riding School was carpeted and transformed into a bewitching ball scene. Six orchestras played while guests danced and wandered from one champagne and sea food bar to another. Officially, the Hofburg was the winter home of the Habsburgs but you can be sure that even they got lost in the jumble of rooms, stairways, secret entrances, and regal staircases fit for an emperor making his grand entrance.
Several balls raise funds for charity. The Vienna Refugee Ball whose patron is the city’s mayor helps to finance housing for refugees. The Life Ball, Europe’s largest AIDS charity event, held on July 17 at City Hall, is probably the most up-to-the-second glam event featuring top models, celebrities, and sexy drag queens.
If you’re thinking about going to a Viennese ball, check out the calendar at Ball Kalender and consult your closet. The dress code, strictly enforced, is to-the-floor gowns for women and white or black tie for men although military dress with medals seems to get by the censors. And of course, you will have much more fun if you brush up on your waltzing. One option is to sign up for private waltz lessons at the Elmayer Dancing School, right across from the Hofburg Palace.
But don’t be misled. The Viennese waltz is 60 beats per minute, a lot livelier than the British which is a mere 30. Keep in mind that one or two lessons are not necessarily confidence building as all the locals appear to have studied at one of the 30 dancing schools in the city for at least two years. The tradition goes back to the post-Napoleonic era when the French were still dancing the polka while the Viennese were studying and rehearsing intricate ball choreography. Even today, as H.L. Mencken once remarked, the waltz never goes out of fashion… it is always around the corner.
Contact the Austrian Tourist Office for more information.
BOBBIE LEIGH has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.