In the early months of the year, nowhere in the world will you find so many young people in fancy dress. Gentlefolk in tuxedos and evening gowns take to the streets, eagerly flocking to the Hofburg, the Musikverein, and the many palaces – Vienna’s unrivaled bastions of ball season.
Willy Elmayer-Vestenbrugg opened Tanzschule Elmayer, the city’s legendary ballroom-dancing school, 100 years ago. He later adopted a young man who would father Vienna’s emperor of etiquette, Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer. As a young boy growing up in Vorarlberg, Thomas was far from Viennese high society, however. When the family went to the Hohenems Palace where the Waldburg-Zeil family lived, “at age five or six,” he told me, “I kissed the countess’s hand and my sister did a curtsy. That’s somewhat unusual.”
In his will, Willy Elmayer-Vestenbrugg hoped that Thomas (the son) would take over the school from his father. But first, Thomas spent 20 years working abroad in industrial management. When his father wished to retire, he returned to Vienna, the city where he had studied. At first he was hesitant: It would mean leaving his job for a completely different world.
“Now it’s been 30 years,” he said with a laugh. “But I said to myself, ‘There is a tradition here which is endangered all over the world. A tradition that brings people together, where people try to behave well, and still, there’s a comfortable atmosphere.
Tanz & Tradition
The dancing school is attended by Viennese teenagers, between 14 and 18. It’s not only a tradition for upper-class families, but also creates a social network between schools, often resulting in life-long friendships and even marriages. “The ball tradition was always about debutantes being introduced to society,” said Schäfer-Elmayer.
Learning ball season etiquette is part of the game, and while many ball goers are not only there to dance, the midnight Quadrille, when guests dance in line formations and then “gallop” around the dancefloor, is an irresistible experience and even non-waltzers take part. Nowhere in the world is ball season as elegantly silly, and as popular, as it is in Vienna.
“It all started in France,” Schäfer-Elmayer explained. He gave me a short historical overview of how the high-society party scene traveled from Spain and Burgundy to Austria. Back then, the opulence and fancy dress was reserved for nobility. Then it spread to civil servants, guilds and tradesmen – the Feuerwehrball (firemen), the Zuckerbäckerball (confectioners), or the Rauchfangkehrerball (chimney sweeps). Today, the Hip Hop Ball, Life Ball and Refugee Ball have joined and the season has become even more affordable and inclusive, and also more diverse. Needless to say, my conversation partner is a traditionalist, both when it comes to dancing, attire and, most of all, etiquette.
The Tanzschule Elmayer offers lessons in manners and behavioral protocol. Schäfer-Elmayer himself teaches business etiquette, including table manners, tactfulness and international business customs. “It’s important to be empathetic, to have insight into human nature, so that you can act in the best way in any situation.”
Ladies & Gentlemen
Touting traditional social values isn’t straight-forward. Much of what Schäfer-Elmayer teaches in his courses on etiquette and dancing decorum still propagates gender-based behavior. His arguments for upholding traditions have garnered him criticism in the media, particularly in a Puls4 debate in the summer of 2018. We spoke about the different standpoints. In fact, he sees tradition as something that strengthens a woman’s position in society.
“If you look back to ancient Rome, the pater familias had the power over life and death,” he says. The chivalry that evolved in the European court elevated women to a higher status, by demonstrating respect and appreciation by way of small gestures and courtesies.
“This is a very current topic,” he said. The septuagenarian firmly defends the traditions of courtesy, like standing up when a woman arrives or leaves, defining them as a tradition stemming from the first culture-wide initiative to raise the status of women. In the Puls4 debate, two young women, the feminist activist Anne Wizorek and journalist Alexandra Stanic argued that chivalrous behavior is pleasant but does not support the equal treatment of women in the workplace and society in general.
“They were of the opinion that these things are just there to show how bad, weak and incapable women are,” he said with a sigh. Schäfer-Elmayer also cited the German feminist writer and activist Alice Schwarzer, who told him she found such behavior “patronizing.”
Both of these interactions seem to have left an impression. He sees a vast difference between how women are treated professionally and in private life. “I know a university professor who told me that she’s the only woman on the board of her university with a bunch of male professors. I understand that,” he shrugs. “She’s the same, and of course that’s also her profession. That’s something different.
”As the teens of 2020 prepare for ball season, Schäfer-Elmayer has his hands full. Not only are his courses for young people booked out, but private lessons and adult classes also boom in the fall and winter. In this, the centennial year, the Elmayer dancing school looks forward to teaching us to waltz, bow and curtsy for generations to come.
WHERE TO FIND THOMAS SCHÄFER-ELMAYER THIS BALL SEASON
The Hofburg Palace
His favorite ball location is also the venue for the 100th Elmayer Kränzchen, the dancing school’s own ball. “It’s one of the favorites, particularly for people from abroad,” he says, “because it starts at six and is over at midnight.” Most balls start much later, 21:00 or 22:00 and last until 5:00. The Kränzchen is also relatively late in the season, on March 5th.
The Hofburg 1., HeldenplatzElmayer Kränzchen, March 5
Vienna Philharmonic Ball
The Philharmoniker Ball is one of Schäfer-Elmayer’s favorites. “At the ball Vienna Philharmonic invites an international star conductor for that one evening. And there are no speeches, it’s just a beautifully staged traditional ball.” Next to the opera ball it may be one of the most prestigious tickets of the season.
Musikverein1., Musikvereinsplatz 1
Vienna Philharmonic Ball, Jan 23
Ball of the Old Scots
The Ball der Alt-Schotten is one of the smaller events of the season that Schäfer-Elmayer recommends. It stems from the ball of the renowned private school by the Freyung in the inner city but today, it’s open to the public and welcomes 1,000 guests. This is also thanks to the partnership with the Tanzschule Elmayer.
Palais Auersperg8., Auerspergstraße 1
Ball der Alt-Schotten, Jan 11
After a ball, so in the wee hours of the morning, most revelers proceed to one of Vienna’s many coffeehouses. Schäfer-Elmayer’s favorite coffeehouse stays open (almost) all night to accommodate the guests of the Coffee Brewers Ball.
Café Landmann1., Universitätsring 4
Kaffeesiederball, Feb 14