Putting on the White Tie and Gown
ON a chilly Sunday in Vienna, the famous Café Bräunerhof had closed for the night, but up the block, close to the Hofburg palace, the lights at the Tanzschule Elmayer were blazing. It was November, and the ball season was drawing near. No one in this city wanted to be caught, come January, unable to dance.
At the dance school, Mathias Brandstetter looked over my wet boots and jeans. “You can go to the dressing room to change your clothes,” he said. I emerged in dress shoes. All around me dance students and their partners moved toward the studios. Every woman wore a skirt. “You don’t have other clothes?” Mr. Brandstetter asked me. “No matter,” he sighed. “It’s a private lesson. Let us begin.”
In 20 minutes I was whirling around the oak-paneled room to a waltz, breathless, cheeks flushed. “Head turned to the left, your hand above my bicep, below my shoulder, soften your knees,” intoned Mr. Brandstetter. “One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three. And relax!”
Vienna takes its ball season very seriously. Beginning on New Year’s Eve and roughly coinciding with Fasching, Austria’s version of the pre-Lent carnival celebration that ends on Feb. 5 of next year, the season is packed with balls from the opening Kaiserball to the Opernball (Opera Ball, the only one held in the Staatsoper and the official ball of the republic) to the balls of the professions (including, but by no means limited to, the Doctors’ Ball, the Lawyers’ Ball, the florists’ Flower Ball, the Pharmacists’ Ball, the Confectioners’ Ball and the Coffee Brewers’ Ball, the largest of all).
In the main ballroom of the Tanzschule Elmayer, five generations of Viennese teenagers have learned to waltz. Adults often return for preball refresher classes, and newbie dancers can begin instruction “any day of the year, any time of day, including Christmas,” said Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, owner of the school and a judge on “Dancing Stars,” the Austrian version of “Dancing With the Stars.”
In recent years the already-crowded ball calendar has grown considerably. The 11-year-old gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Regenbogenball (Rainbow Ball), this year on Jan. 26, the first and only to have an all-women orchestra — a small scandal among traditionally all-male musical ensembles — serves as a fund-raiser for the June Pride Parade in Vienna. The Life Ball in May (well past traditional ball season) is one of Europe’s largest charity events for H.I.V.-AIDS and related philanthropies in Austria and abroad, and proceeds from the Refugee Ball in March go to, you guessed it, refugee organizations. Each of the other modern balls is also a fundraising event in some way, and they are moneymakers for Viennese hotels, dress and tuxedo shops, restaurants and cafes as well.
But money aside, they are a chance for Viennese of all ages to cut loose, dress up, indulge. In ball season, the city is in deep freeze, but women, dressed in increasingly fabulous, floor-length gowns, matched by partners in white or black tie, seem oblivious to the cold. Walk around the Hofburg or the Ringstrasse in the tony First District on a Saturday night in late January, and you’re bound to see them, alighting from horse-drawn carriages, chauffeured cars, taxis and the metro, glittering against the frigid night, laughing as they approach the Hofburg and the Opera House, the Musikverein and the Rathaus (town hall).
A few balls, like the Regenbogen, gently push the boundaries. “At the other balls, there are such strict rules on clothing,” said Martina Glanzl, a spokeswoman for the ball, which welcomed 1,200 guests last year, many of them in drag.
The Jägerball (Hunters’ Ball) is the only other ball that runs counter to the dress code. Its patrons are clad in traditional Austrian folk dress: dirndls and lederhosen. “It’s very conservative,” one Austrian friend whispered to me, arching her brow. “It’s where the supporters of the far right go.”
“Formerly, balls belonged only to the elite, but under Franz Josef I” — the Austrian emperor from 1848 to 1916 — “people were allowed to make their own festivities, hold their own balls, so each of us now have our own,” said Maximilian Platzer, chairman of the Kaffeesiederball (Coffee Brewers’ Ball), as we sat in his marvelously traditional Viennese coffee house, Café Weimar, near the Volksoper. “Every business group, even the roofers. We all have our balls.”
The budget for the Kaffeesiederball is 500,000 euros, or $750,000 at $1.50 to the euro. Last year it offered 12 ensembles (from orchestras to big bands) as well as a performance by the state opera ballet corps for its 5,000 guests. Held at the Hofburg, it is the only ball that is allowed to use every formerly royal room. Until 4:30 a.m., guests wander and imbibe, mingle and dance. Only half the guests even purchase seats at all (entrance tickets and table seats are sold separately). Last year, Nina Hagen performed as a special guest star. “You have heard of her?” Mr. Platzer asked. “German mother of punk.”
The waltz, however, remains king everywhere.