Published: 13th November 2011
Let’s go to Vienna. I want to go to a ball.” It was the crazed suggestion of a wild moment — but, once uttered, the idea wouldn’t stop twirling through my mind. The only ball I’d attended was back in my twenties, and involved rock bands and mud. I wanted to experience the old-time magic of long gowns and grand entrances, of finely dressed men and women spinning around and around. Literature is laced with them, from Pride and Prejudice to War and Peace — pinch-waisted occasions where people hold their partners close and feel the way they move. The formality makes all that repressed lust even more interesting.
Staging more than 300 balls between New Year’s Eve and March, Vienna in the season takes the art of the showpiece dance seriously. If you want to time-travel, this is the place. The city embraces its imperial past with gusto, and the event we selected, the Kaffeiederball, is among the flounciest. It is organised by Vienna’s coffee-house owners, and the pictures I found online showed a sea of debutantes in a froth of bridal white: not just gowns, but coronets and long white gloves.
Ah, yes. Even today, the ball is about transformation. We dress up, throw off our ordinariness; we are Cinderellas on the loose. Who needs a rave in Ibiza when you can dance under the chandeliers of a fairy-tale palace in Vienna’s bitter, romantic winter?
Just one problem. Husband and I didn’t know any ballroom dancing, let alone the Viennese waltz, which I’d read was the only dance one can respectably get away with at a Viennese ball. First stop, therefore, was a lesson at the Elmayer, one of the city’s many dance studios. For a crash course in high-class Austrian hoofing, look no further.
Our magician of an instructress, Suzanne, wore a military red jacket and high black heels. She led us into a music-box of a room with a wooden floor and mirrors all around. We first learnt turns, then added speed.
Suzanne ran beside us, pushing the lead dancer forward as though spinning an unwieldy top. Her commands rang clearly: “Relax. Move as one piece. Close together. Man in charge. Always follow his lead. Man must hold his position, elbows and shoulders up, and staying strong and firm. Listen to the beat.” Any one of these things we could perhaps have achieved, but not all of them at once.
The lesson was over. “It is a hard dance,” Suzanne said sympathetically. I asked her what we should do if I stepped on the Prince of Liechtenstein’s toe and brought the 5,000 dancers at the Hofburg Palace to a complete halt? “Just smile and sway a bit,” she said.
Next step in the transformation was a visit to Flossmann, which hires out ball gowns — and what ball gowns. Ruby dresses and purple ones, some of tulle, some satin, some with ruffles or a sweeping train, others with formidable skirts. The latter are especially in demand for the prestigious Opera Ball, where really big frocks are de rigueur.
Almost time for our grand debut. The Kaffeesiederball had been recommended to us as more friendly and traditional than the Opera Ball, which draws Austrian high society and the international jet set — everyone from Russian oligarchs to, this year, Bob Geldof. The opening ceremony is at 9pm, so we dined early on foaming horseradish soup at the sumptuous, quintessentially Viennese Hotel Sacher. Mixing grandeur with warmth, it is decorated in sapphire and crimson, its hallways papered with photographs of illustrious guests. Graham Greene conceived The Third Man here in 1948; Orson Welles propped up the bar during the filming.
In the bar sat a white-moustachioed gentleman, his legs crossed and one polished shoe pointing upwards in ecstasy as he ate a strudel with a tiny silver fork. Like Vienna itself, he managed to be imperious and likeable all at once.
Just before 9pm, we hurried up the red carpet to the Hofburg’s main hall, where the opening ceremony was about to begin. After speeches in German (sigh), hundreds of pearly-white debutantes fluttered onto the dancefloor, arm in arm with their escorts, and began the most exquisite waltz.
“The Viennese love to dance,” smiled a handsome man sitting nearby, whose name was Bernd. “If the world were ending tomorrow, still we would dance.”
The evening was livening up, and the scene before me was unlike anything I’d experienced before: on a vast scale, thousands of people moved among a warren of high-ceilinged rooms, young and old together. Everyone was formally dressed, in tuxedos or gowns. Few set out to make a personal statement, as they might have done in London, for example.
We drank some beer, observed how uncomfortable the women looked in the most splendid of the gowns, and steeled ourselves to brave the floor. My research had deceived me: all kinds of music and dancing are permissible at a Vienna ball. But it was too late to change step now. “One, two, three,” we muttered under our breath, and waltzed onto the floor... way too fast, bashing into someone. But we couldn’t stop, because couples were twirling behind us, in front of us, everywhere. I felt I’d somehow lurched onto a black ski run when I should have been on blue. We were swept around, we made some turns and we laughed as we crashed off the dancefloor at the first available exit.
“Ah,” said my husband, studiously examining the map of the ballrooms, “there’s a disco in the basement. And jazz in the room over there.” From somewhere came the lilt of The Girl from Ipanema, which for the first time in my life actually sounded appealing. We drank some more beer and noticed a stall selling frankfurters. “Well, we’ve done the Viennese waltz in Vienna,” he said. “I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’d like to try once more.” He gazed into his amber ale.
By now, a few of the perfectly coiffed young damsels had that soft-round-the-mouth look of girls who’ve had a few more drinks than they ought to. Their high heels had begun to look too high for them; the full skirts seemed to wear the dancers, rather than the other way round. Yet nobody seemed drunk.
I passed the handsome Bernd, who smiled once more. And then it happened. My worst fear. Oh no, please, no... The dashing Bernd had my hand and was leading me out onto the immense dance floor. “The best way to learn the Viennese waltz,” he said firmly, “is with a Viennese.”I turned for help, but my husband chose that moment to glance away, delighted not to have to dance again. Already Bernd was spinning me, and at first my feet made only an approximate guess at following his. Then he said
“Relax”, and “Closer”, and all of a sudden it was happening — I was swirling across a Viennese ballroom, faster and faster, slaloming through the crowds. It felt like flying. It was glorious.
“You improved as we danced,” Bernd said afterwards. “Once you relaxed. In Vienna, we begin to learn when we are quite young. Another nine dances and you’d be perfect.” He was very polite.
And so, at 3am, I stepped out into the freezing streets to return to the Sacher, barely noticing the cold. I hadn’t joined in the midnight quadrille, with its complicated steps and mad dash between whirling columns of dancers. Perhaps next year. But for one golden moment at least, I had fulfilled my fairy tale, just like in those bookshelf romances. Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara, eat your hearts out.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of the Hotel Sacher and the Viennese Tourist Board.
Where to stay
The Leading Hotels of the World (00800 2888 8882, lhw.com) has doubles at the Hotel Sacher (sacher.com) from £320, room-only. Or try the Hotel Rathaus (00 43 1-400 1122, hotel-rathaus-wien.at; doubles from £136, B&B).
Tickets for the Kaffeesiederball cost £110 (www.kaffeesiederball.at); it’s twice that for the Opera Ball. A private lesson at Elmayer Dance School (512 7197, elmayer.at) costs £50. Flossmann (512 0166, flossmann.at) offers gown rental, fitting and insurance from £100.
A ball calendar and full booking details are available from the Viennese Tourist Board (00 43 1 24555, vienna.info).