By Claudia Paccosi and Dardis McNamee
December skies weigh heavily in Vienna, relentless reminders of the months of gloom ahead. So, as autumn dulls into winter, the Viennese are prepared. Under ropes of light, Christmas markets throw open their shutters, as steaming mugs of Punschand Glühwein create clusters of good humor and camaraderie. There seems to be music everywhere, indoors and out; theaters are full and every night, someone seems to be throwing a party, climaxing in the glories of the New Year.
Now what? Nearly three more months of winter… In Vienna, silly season has just begun, as everyone – from banker to coffee brewer, from scholar to chimney sweep – everyone dusts off the finery and goes to a ball. Or two. Or three. Whatever the world’s troubles, they are set-aside for these occasions, when, in time-honored Viennese tradition, it’s all about the illusion.
MAKE YOURSELF BEAUTIFUL
Getting ready for this special evening needs a few hours more than usual. Your hair needs to be brushed, plated and braided into an elegant collected do, the make-up has to be sparkling, brilliant and showy. The shimmering blue princess dress bought a few weeks ago, appropriately shortened by the seamstress so that the tips of your shoes are barely visible, has to be perfectly ironed. A bit of advice: Don’t wear tights and wear comfortable dancing shoes. The night is going to be very long and hot!
Acquiring the proper outfit for a Viennese ball takes some doing – the balls have different themes and tones, starting with the New Year’s Eve celebrations, and January’s Masked Ball, the Confectioners’ or the Hunters’ Ball, and finishes with the end of the Carnival. But there are retailers at nearly all price levels and if you’re careful, here or there you can save some money for this luxurious and magical Austrian experience.
Women need floor-length ball gowns for most balls: The fastest source is Peek and Cloppenburg (with a tailoring service as well), the cheapest probably Zalando with prices below €100 for simple yet elegant dresses. Men need a tuxedo or a set of tails, which can be more expensive than a gown, but get a lot of use, and can also be rented for around €120. Shoes are not included but can be the most important part of an outfit as they will be the sine qua nonfor (at least) five hours, as you whirl off for a waltz or a polka and spend the night standing and chatting. The best way is to move to the location with warm comfy boots (the ball season happens during the coldest months of the year, January and February) and change them for dancing shoes.
First, you’ve got to choose among around 450 balls featuring over 2,000 hours of live music in some of the most charming palaces in Vienna. Many of the balls are at the Hofburg of the Rathaus, but you can attend the Bonbon Ballat the Wiener Konzerthaus and the Techniker Cercleor the Philharmoniker Ball at the Musikverein, to share for a night the transformation of the concert hall parket into a dance floor for hundreds of people. Doors usually open at 8 pm for a formal opening at 9 pm, when the young debutants in long white gowns enter on the arms of their escorts in white tie and tails for a well-rehearsed quadrille and the first Wienerwalzer,the Viennese waltz, joined hands outstretched as they arched slightly back in sweeping turns to the left. Most of the time there are some variations with Latin dance shows or opera singers, but as soon as the night’s speaker says “und jetzt alles Walzer”(and now all waltz) you melt into an evening of dancing and conversation.
As not everyone is born with the sense of rhythm in his veins, Vienna offers some quick courses to learn the basic steps of waltz and some longer lessons (at least three months) to learn the basic dances, the Viennese waltz, the slow waltz, the foxtrot, boogie-woogie, rumba and cha cha cha, and in the more advanced course, the polka, jive, and paso doble, so on the night, you can step out onto the dance floor with pride.
A ball is about dancing, but not only. Many people just go to have some drinks and chat with friends and acquaintances old and new about politics, the future, the past, and, typically for the Viennese, to complain about something. Every ball is hosted by and for a professional group or association – although anyone can buy a ticket and attend – starting from university balls for WU, TU and BOKU students, to the Ball of the Sciences (Wissenschaften), the doctors, the gardeners or the chimney sweeps.
Be sure to buy your ticket in advance and be aware that a regular ticket means you quite literally may be on your feet the whole night. Reserving a table costs more, and, depending on location, can be quite expensive. Drinks and food are offered, almost always pay as you go. Ball tickets themselves vary widely, from moderately priced (€80 to €120) to very expensive (the most expensive lounge for the Opera ball costs €23,600). If you’re a student tickets are usually €30/40 and debutants and escorts usually attend for free.
DANCING UNTIL DAWN
Going to a ball is an experience you should do at least once in your live. It’s like stepping into a time machine to a different era with, the chance to feel fabulous in a dress you’ll never wear a second ti me. But, let’s be honest: It’s exhausting. You normally arrive at a ball at around 8 pm and rarely leave before 3 am (to make the most of your ticket), not to mention the hours needed to get fabulous. You stand, move, drink, dance, chat and drink some more (hence the comfy dancing shoes) and at the end you’ll need a 4 am Würstel and a couch day to follow.
Despite that, it’s the essence of this city , especially at midnight. Even if you think you hate to dance and figure you’ll stand at the bar for hours drinking Sektand eating Schnitzel, you’ll have to take part in the Quadrille français, traditionally performed at every ball at midnight. This is a formal line dance in pairs (if your date is too cowardly, you can often find a partner at the last minute on the dance floor!) in groups of four. A quadrille is hard to prep for, unless you grew up here and learned it in dancing school. Although you can study up with a helpful performance video on Youtube from the Elmayer Tanzschule subtitled with steps and directions.
But fear not, many of the best dancers of the city don’t have this down perfectly. None of which seems to matter as the caller is there to shout out the steps – le Compliment, the Traversé, Tour de mainor Chaine des Dames– assisting you through the maneuvers, warning which way to turn next and how the gents should guide the ladies through the space.
Soon enough, however, hilarity takes hold. Perhaps it’s the intoxicating music of Die Fledermaus. Perhaps it’s just too many people in too little space.
Perhaps it’s the fault of the caller – a job calling for a drill sergeant steeped in chaos theory! However practiced, it can’t be easy managing a dance floor floating on the bubbles of Hochriegel or Schlumberger. Swept up in it all, people can’t keep from laughing as they step up to bow in the wrong direction, reach for the wrong partner or bump into the couple behind, as all the while, the music gets faster and faster. The final dance is always a polka quickly mounting into a high-risk traveling step, affectionately called der Gallop, sliding around the hall at breakneck speed, until the caller shouts Richtungswechsel (change directions!) and you screech to a halt hoping not to end up on the floor. Until you somehow fall into a line, sashaying on under an arbor of people stretching their arms in a canopy above you.
So going to a ball can be expensive, exhausting, even dangerous (the polka has been known to leave people black and blue)… but hey! Complaining in Vienna is your right! Is there any other city in the world that has complaining rights for the morning after a ball, after all those golden salons and glittering chandeliers that have transformed them for a night into royalty of taffeta and white tie?
Is there any other city where bars offer (as a special Service zur Ball-Saison) the ultimate “Kater-Killer,” i.e. the hair of the dog: At the famed Loos Bar, it’s an “Oyster-Mary” – a Bloody Mary glorified with horseradish cream and oyster sauce, served with a side of quail eggs and caviar. In ball season, only the best will do.