I’m sitting on a white, soft sofa in a changing room; next to me a guy is tying his black shoes, polished to a mirror shine. He’s embarrassed, but at the same time can’t hide a smile. We’re at the Thomas Kraml Dance School for our weekly ballroom dancing class. I’m a bit nervous, as I am every time. My hair is put up and I’m wearing an elegant burgundy dress. Each Wednesday about 30 of us meet in a large room illuminated by strobe lights and panelled with mirrors, where we learn the foxtrot, rumba, cha-cha-cha, tango, and of course, the waltz.
It’s a singles’ course, so everyone dances for a few minutes with someone, and then the partners change. When the lights are dimmed the girls place their left hand on their partner’s shoulder, take their weight off their first foot to move and wait for the cue. The music starts and the couples start to move, close to each other, leaning back imitating the charming “ flower position.” Someone stumbles and laughs, others are deeply concentrating. The music fades out, the lights come up. It’s time for the next partner – another face, a different grip and two new anxious feet.
Learn how to dance in Vienna
Thomas Kraml, a professional from ORF’s “Dancing Stars” TV show, has opened three dancing schools in Vienna, to teach not only dance steps, but a new way to have a great time.
Balls and dancing have a long history in Austria and especially in Vienna and live on in many different forms and social occasions. This particular school offers a modern way to dance in pairs, and to take part in the city’s events and have fun without a dress code or too many rules. All the classes are in German, but most of us learn by imitation anyway. With classes for young people, singles, couples, and kids, it’s an occasion for people to socialize with their peers, away from the daily grind.
The Marseillaise of the heart
The waltz is Vienna’s way to move. It’s the fastest dance on the program, but at the same time the most elegant and nostalgic. The verb “to waltz” in German means to turn. It was first used in Vienna in 1807, but made famous during the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, where it was said that the Congress danced. In 1866, Johann Strauss brought it international fame with An der schönen blauen Donau – that many (including Johannes Brahms) consider one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Since then everyone connects the Austrian capital with the eternal elegance of graceful couples swirling counter clockwise around the floor.
At a private waltz lesson in Vienna in a beautiful Palais am Beethovenplatz across from the Konzerthaus, I met Walter Stecher for intimate one-to-one lessons. I got my first real feeling of the hypnotic motion of the waltz all in an elegant, ambient mood with a glass of champagne and the possibility to fall into in a timeless tradition of courtoisie – to learn the right way to invite a lady to dance, or how to accept when the offer is right! The academy also organizes private concerts, galas and occasions for families or small groups.
During the same evening, I also took a look at the famed Elmayer Dance School, just a pleasant walk through the 1st district to Palais Pallavicini on Bräunerstrasse.
Being a debutant and opening a ball in Hofburg or Rathaus has been a tradition for Viennese youth since Joseph II first invited the public to the royal family’s galas in 1770. Elmayer is the oldest dance school in Vienna, founded in 1919 in the former stables of the palace where it’s remains to this day, where three generations of Elmayers teach the waltz, the quadrille and all the other dances needed for the Viennese ball season. “It’s important for young people to have fun and at the same time learn etiquette in a city where more than 450 balls are opened every year. To keep the great heritage that the city has given us and to keep the personal social encounter alive, away from smartphones and social media,” CEO Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer told me.
Trip the light fantastic
In some ways, the current time seems to be more nostalgic than ever. In the last 10 years a swing dance style from the 1930s, the lindy hop, became a trend across Europe and the U.S. and developed a large and passionate following. Popularized by Frankie Manning at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York City during the Great Depression, in a crowded room where black and white people were allowed to pass through the same door, acrobatic couples let themselves go with dazzling – and dangerous – aerial steps.
I met Dominik Knoll and Nora Locher from SwingAUT in Cafè Blaustern on a rainy morning in October; Nora’s bright red hair and Dominik’s floppy fedora hat told me this was going to be fun.
At SwingAUT you can learn all styles of swing dance and improvise at will at any of the many parties in the Vienna scene each month.
“The cool thing about swing is that you’re totally free,” Dominik told me, “free to choose the steps, free to dress vintage, free to jump, free to follow or be a leader, free to dance with a man or a woman, free to be silly and clumsy. There’s no right or wrong, there’s just fun.”
I couldn’t resist. And whatever style or setting you choose, once you start, it’s easy to get addicted. You’ll dance at the class, dance at the balls or parties, dance with new friends, dance at home, dance while waiting for the next bus. And to dance, you don’t have to be skinny or beautiful, talented or amazing, you just have to relax and express with your body the playfulness that’s inside.
How to step out
Getting Ready for the Ball
- Check where to practice your steps. wotanzen.at
- Choose one from the list of the most charming balls for season 2017-2018. wien.info
- Don’t forget the right shoes to slip harmoniously onto the floor. tanzboutique.at
- Buy or rent proper dress, tailcoat or tuxedo for the night. lechic-wien.at, flossmann.at
One, Two, Three … One, Two, Three …
Hop on for an hour of Viennese waltz lessons. Even if you’re in Vienna for one day, you have to dance to Strauss’ music. viennesewaltz.at
If you’re between 17 and 24 years old and have very good left-turn waltzing skills, make your debut at the State Opera Ball. wiener-staatsoper.at
Learn (to Love) air Steps
Check for swing events in Vienna swing.wien
Watch the most famous Lindy Hop scene from the movie Hellzapoppin’ (1941).
Get envious of contemporary amazing Lindy Hoppers, by watching the documentary Alive and Kicking (2016) available on Netflix.
Get a 1930s style pair of handmade shoes at saintsavoy.com