Vienna: Take a spin in the uncontested ball capital of the world
Vienna has been the uncontested ball capital of the world for the past two centuries. Sue Wallace puts on her dancing shoes and gets her Cinderella moment at one of the best.
One, two, three … one, two, three … feet together, then twirl.
I am 30 minutes into a private waltz lesson with the debonair Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, head of Vienna’s legendary Elmayer Dance School, founded in 1919. It seems I have two left feet as I watch others glide effortlessly around the herringbone wood dance floor in the small historic studio. On the busiest days, up to 600 dance students of all ages learn how to waltz here in preparation for Vienna’s hectic ball season.
Herr Schäfer-Elmayer, who is in his 70s, returned as the third-generation of this family business in 1987, after a distinguished career in the metal industry. He’s an expert on Austrian balls, manners and etiquette, and has published a hefty bible on the subject. He has also been a judge on Austria’s popular TV show, Dancing Stars. “The waltz is an extremely easy dance,” he explains. “It’s just practise. You don’t even need a partner for that; you just do the steps a little bit faster and faster and faster. In the beginning, you may become dizzy from time to time, but a quick turn to the other direction, and it’s gone.”
I figure I have six hours to practise before I hit the dance floor at the 62nd edition of the popular Coffee House Owners’ Ball at the Hofburg Palace, the former imperial home of the Habsburgs. There are over 400 balls hosted in Vienna each season, from the elegant and traditional to rollicking carnival parties. The quirkiest? The Chimney Sweeps’ Ball and the Hip Hop Ball, where the dress code is formal with sneakers.
The fairytale begins…
Before the festivities commence, noted celebrity makeup and hair stylist, Rosi Brückler, performs a makeover that leaves us ball-ready and looking our best.
“False eyelashes?” she queries.
“Why not? It’s not every night you attend a Viennese Ball,” I say.
There’s just a little time to sweep around the ballroom in the glorious Park Hyatt Vienna, a former bank that has had a stunning transformation. I am quietly confident I have almost got that waltz mastered. Wearing a new black evening dress, I join friends for dinner at the hotel’s chic Bank Brasserie & Bar, where we sip champagne and toast our first Viennese ball.
There’s a fairytale feel about the night, and just like Cinderella, I climb into a horse-drawn carriage on a crisp winter night, accompanied by the clip-clopping of eager horses on the old cobblestones. Coats discarded, we head to the main ballroom that is fit for royalty. Beautiful gowns in every hue turn heads, while the palace decor astounds.
Tonight, there are 3,600 guests from 18 nations. Our table has a prime position and we wait for the dramatic opening with the Vienna State Ballet and the presentation of the debutantes. Young girls dressed in elegant white gowns and young men in tuxedos with shiny black shoes and crisp white bow ties take to the floor as the music fills the ballroom. Round and round they go as months of training pays off. They are simply spellbinding: a vision in black and white.
Taking to the floor
Dance over, there’s a hush and Herr Schäfer-Elmayer, who is overseeing the ceremony, calls “Alles Walzer”, inviting all to dance.
I am tapped on the shoulder by a handsome young man, Andreas, who kisses my hand and invites me to dance. Next minute we are waltzing … well, kind of. It’s such a thrill as we move around the dance floor, but not without the odd foot stumble (my fault, of course). Dizzy? Yes, a little. Andreas, who works part time for the dance school, is known as a taxi dancer, or Taxitänzer, a professional you can hire to dance with for an hour or so, or even the whole night. He supplements his income by dancing while he attends university.
“I love dancing and it is a great honour to dance at these balls,” he says.
It’s a sentiment reflected by so many young men and women as they twirl around the dance floor, swapping from the waltz to contemporary dances. It is not surprising the Viennese love their music; Mozart, Mahler, Haydn and Johann Strauss, the king of the Viennese waltz, all lived here. Music plays such an important part in the lives of the Viennese, and every New Year’s Eve people take to the streets to waltz to ‘An der schönen blauen Donau’, or ‘The Blue Danube’.
Dancing till dawn
Late in the night, the popular Fledermaus Quadrille by Johann Strauss II is called. It has been danced since the 19th century, and there’s such a crowd that it is elbow to elbow on the dance floor. A French matron whispers to me: “The more crowded it is, the more they love it.”
We explore the palace rooms where there’s all sorts of dancing and dining, a gin bar in one room, a fast-paced disco in another. At midnight, there’s entertainment and concerts and everyone’s having the time of their life.
The ball doesn’t finish until 5am when the lights are dimmed, the last slow waltz played and friends are farewelled.
We celebrate a wonderful night with another time-honoured Austrian tradition: a wursti at the Bitzinger sausage stand at Albertinaplatz. Coffee houses also do a roaring trade, serving spicy goulash soup for tired and ravenous ballgoers in the early morning.
I fall into bed – false eyelashes removed – with aching feet and a deeper love of all things Austrian. I just hope Herr Schäfer-Elmayer is proud of my dance efforts; otherwise, next time, it’s hip hop and sneakers for me.
Thai Airways International flies 29 times a week non-stop from Australia to Thailand with onward connections to Europe including Vienna.
Hire your ball attire from bridal and evening wear specialist, Flossmann.
Ball season in Vienna
Should you wish to attend one of the 400-plus balls held in winter, it’s as easy as purchasing a general admission ticket. Ball attire can be hired. For women, it’s floor-length evening gowns and for men, it’s tails or a tuxedo. Ball etiquette dictates that wristwatches aren’t to be worn with tails; a gold fob watch with a chain is preferred. Most of all, take a few dancing lessons so you can join in the evening’s festivities.