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Tales from Vienna

Waltzing at Dawn

 

Vienna Physicians Ball 2003

This evening was not unlike many others.  I had danced the Viennese Waltz many times before.  We were surrounded by hundreds of other couples in white tie and elegant dress, also turning and flowing across a magnificent ballroom, adorned with flowers everywhere.  The orchestra was playing the waltz from The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar.  But this was the Vienna Philharmonic Ball, and a chill was running down my spine as one by one, from across the ballroom floor, a growing chorus of Austrian voices spontaneously joined into the melody.

For many people the Viennese ball is synonymous with the beauty and grace of the 19th century.   Dancing at thirty revolutions per minute, one can not help feeling swept back to an era where romance ruled the world and moved the heavens.

I have attended several Viennese balls in the states, including one especially enchanting evening in Washington D.C, less than a mile from the White House.  An eighteen-piece orchestra played in a lovely ballroom filled with dancers who were quite fluent in the Viennese Waltz.  Attending the ball alone, I, dressed in white tie, spent many occasions walking along the perimeter of the ballroom, looking for another dance partner.  Towards the conclusion of the ball I was asked by a lady if any VIPs were present.  I confessed to not know, and politely asked her why she had asked me.  “I’ve see you pass by so many times that I assumed that you must be the Secret Service!”

This year I decided to attend balls in Vienna.  I timed my sabbatical to be in London, a short flight away from Vienna, during the ball season, which runs from New Years until the first day of Lent.  I had made arrangements with interested members of the Johann Strauss Society of Great Britain and Classical Partners.  Dance lessons for the Viennese Waltz, Polka, and Galop took place in London on three successive weekends.  Afterwards, a group of more than 20 people converged at balls in Vienna.  My official storyline for attending the balls with a group from the UK was that the most important dancing skill is the ability to carry on a lively conversation while you are waltzing across the ballroom, but my German vocabulary is very limited.

Every winter there are hundreds of balls in Vienna.  Balls are held by almost every conceivable trade or social organization, such as florists, lawyers, coffeehouses, engineering students, and military officers. Tickets for most of these balls are open to the public, and quite often a majority of those who attend these functions are in no way associated with the sponsor.  Major balls are held in palaces and halls such as the Hofburg or the Rathaus.  Most of these are quite elegant events, with traditional Viennese music and a black tie or white tie dress code.  Women wear long dresses that flare out as they turn, and opera-length gloves.

Several members of our group attended the Vienna Philharmonic Ball on Thursday January 23rd, with almost everyone present two days later for the Vienna Physicians Ball on Saturday January 25th.

 

Vienna Philharmonic Ball

The Philharmonic Ball is one of the most elegant balls in Vienna.  It is held in the Musikverein, home of the annual New Years Day concerts.  An unlimited number of tickets (100 E) were on sale up until the afternoon of the ball.  I was told that there were more than three thousand people present on that evening.

The chairs were removed from the main floor, resulting in a very large ballroom.  Balconies were adorned with thousands of flowers and reserved tables were set up in the box seating areas.  We arrived early in order to secure a good position from which to watch the opening ceremonies.  There wasn’t enough seating and standing room in the balconies for many of the later arrivals.

The opening began with a fanfare, composed for this ball by Ricard Strauss in 1921, and then a lovely performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra of the Valse movement from the Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz.

This was followed by the Cotillion, perhaps one hundred selected young dancers who had spent many hours preparing an elegantly choreographed polonaise to traditional Viennese music, concluding with the Wiener Bleu waltz.  The women all wore long white dresses, and the men were attired in black tailcoats, so that when they waltzed together they produced a strobe-like white-black-white-black visual effect.

The ceremony closed with the proclamation “Alzer walzer!” (Everyone waltz.)  Ironically, as thousands of attendees moved onto the floor for the first waltz, the initial fluid motion solidified into a densely packed throng when no one could move more than a few inches, let alone waltz!

Music for the remainder of the evening was provided by an excellent dance orchestra, which alternated sets with a dance band.  Unfortunately, for those of us who had come to waltz, three quarters of the music was modern ballroom, swing, or pop tunes.  Many waltzes were played, but the floor remained too crowded for the Viennese waltz.  The feeling was not unlike crawling down the M25 at 2 MPH in a Lamborghini.

At midnight and 2 AM everyone packed onto the floor for the Fledermaus Quadrilles, a tradition at every ball.  The quadrilles are danced with couples lined up in pairs of long columns.  The six quadrilles are danced to different songs from Die Fledermaus.  Each quadrille consists of between 10 and 20 different motions, called out in German, with French names, such as “Tour de Main” (hand-against hand, turn around your partner).  Brace yourself for surprises in the fifth quadrille.  And the sixth quadrille is always repeated several times, each time faster than the last, until people are madly dashing between each other and becoming merrily confused.  Adding to the excitement, between each quadrille several couples break out from the formation and dance a galop to the other end of the column and back before the beginning of the next quadrille.

While waiting in line at the box office to buy my ticket, I had asked about where I could take quadrille lessons.  A very friendly and helpful young lady from Vienna told me to not worry, because many people did not know the steps, which was half of the fun.  So when we lined up for the quadrille, we made a point of standing across from a young couple who had been part of the cotillion, and were quadrille experts.  Over the course of the dance many facial expressions were exchanged as we tried to mirror their steps.

The quadrilles concluded when the orchestra broke into a galop, resulting in a stampede of thousands of people circulating the dance floor, all simultaneously turning around every time that “Reverse!” was called out in German.  Within a minute, couples were arching their hands in the air to form long tunnels through which other couples danced.

We waited until the early hours of the morning for the dense crowds on the floor to thin enough that we could waltz.  Unfortunately, there was not the slightest hint of evaporation, right up until 5 AM, when the chandeliers were dimmed, and in almost total darkness we danced the last slow waltz.

Vienna Physicians Ball

The Vienna Physicians Ball was held two days later at the Imperial Palace, were most of the major balls are staged.  The interiors of this palace complex were simply stunning.  The main hall again hosted a dance orchestra and a dance band that alternated sets, with the orchestra playing half Viennese music, and half modern ballroom.  There were also several smaller ballrooms where small bands played pop and swing tunes.

One minor problem at the Hofburg complex was that it is so large. Our table was so far from the main ballroom that we occasionally missed dances that we would have enjoyed.

Although the general dancing was much like the Vienna Philharmonic Ball, the cotillion had a Broadway show atmosphere, with no Viennese music.  It featured an exhibition ballroom dance team that, although extremely talented, danced to a mixture of musical snippets, interspersed with frequent bows, that I personally found somewhat lacking in charm and grace.  And at midnight there was a “surprise” performance by an imitation Bee Gees ensemble, complete with disco lights.

A majority of our group only stayed for the 3 AM Fledermaus Quadrille.  Shortly thereafter, the ballroom floor opened up to became fertile Viennese Waltz territory.  For the last set, the conductor picked up his violin and played along with the orchestra.

 

Recommendations

  • Consider visiting Vienna, which is a very lovely city, any time of year.
  • Definitely attend a ball, if you are able to.  If you enjoy modern pop and ballroom dance, you will have an excellent time.
  • If you want to waltz in Vienna, you will want to look for traditional balls in large halls  (like the Imperial Palace) that are less popular, and hence less crowded. 
  • An excellent source of advice is the Elmayer Dance School, which is located across the street from the Hofburg Palace.  Thomas Elmayer trains the cotillions for the major balls.  He and his staff are extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and courteous.
  • If you can, try to attend the ball in a larger group.  It never hurts to have more than one dance partner, and can be a lifesaver if your favorite partner is waylaid by a sprained ankle or personal disagreements.
  • Take dance lessons before arriving in Vienna.
  • Look into dance lesson at the Elmayer school.  You may have a difficult time finding another dance school where you can learn the Polka, Galop, and most certainly the Quadrille.  The Elmayer school provided a quadrille lesson for our group on the afternoon before the ball that was especially helpful.
  • Check the dress code for the ball.  For most balls black tie is required for men, and floor-length dresses for women.  Anything less, and you may not be admitted past the door.
  • Do not assume that you will be able to rent/hire formalwear in Vienna.  Come prepared.
  • Wear comfortable dance shoes.  If you want to waltz, you will probably want to bring a separate pair of leather sole shoes, just for dancing. 
  • Get some rest on the afternoon before the ball.  You will need it.
  • Have a modest dinner several hours beforehand.  Dancing on a full stomach can add to the challenge.
  • Arrive as early as possible in order to find a position in the main hall where you can observe the opening ceremony.
  • If you want to waltz, stay until the very end.  Waltzing is usually impossible for the first few hours of the ball.
  • Join the quadrille and galop, even if you do not know how. It will be a riot!