This post was inspired by several things: my interest in ballroom culture and history, my love of the Viennese Waltz, my desire to visit Vienna (so much that I asked for Vienna travel guides for Christmas last year), and a few recent conversations about masquerade balls. After doing some basic research on the subject, I discovered that Viennese ball season begins on New Year’s Eve with a major celebration, which made this a perfect time to write about it. So about a week ago, I did write about it — extensively — and waited for this most auspicious date to post it. According to one of my travel guides and the website it directed me to, there are hundreds of balls held in Vienna each year, primarily between New Year’s Eve and the beginning of Lent. This period is called Fasching (Carnival).
The first ball of the season will be held tonight, on New Year’s Eve ,and is called Le Grand Bal (Kaiserball). Le Grand Bal’s official website describes it as “a fairy-tale evening” with “beautifully decorated state rooms, an incredible artistic programme, and an exquisite gala dinner” in addition to fireworks, a red carpet, and of course, tons of dancing and music. The dancing will include ballet by the Vienna State Opera Ballet, ballroom by debutantes from the nearly one hundred-year-old Elmayer Dance School, open dances, and a public quadrille (a type of square dance). According to the program, the evening will be full of Viennese Waltzes (including Strauss’s famous “Blue Danube Waltz”) and Polonaises (a Polish folk dance), in addition to ballroom, opera, swing, and jazz music by a variety of notable musicians. Ball gowns and tuxedos are required. Evidently, the ball has a theme each year, and this year’s theme is L’Esprit Viennois (The Spirit of Vienna). The official program, including a menu, list of the evening’s events, and biographies of the performers, can be downloaded from the website.
One of the coolest things about Le Grand Bal is that it is held at the Hofburg (Imperial Palace). The Hofburg has housed the Austrian government in one form or another since 1275. Today, it is the location of the Austrian President’s offices (Brook 96-97). In addition, the Hofburg Complex includes the renowned Spanish Riding School, the Austrian National Library, the Imperial Apartments and Treasury, which contain a wealth of Austrian treasures as early as those of Charlemagne, the concert venue of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and several museums of art, weapons, musical instruments, decorative arts, and more (Brook 96-101; McNamee & Childs 126-133).
The biggest, most important, and therefore most exclusive ball is the Vienna Opera Ball (Opernball), which will next be held on February 27, 2014. According to the official website, “On one hand, the Vienna Opera Ball combines the Viennese lifestyle with international allure, and on the other the modern stage management of a traditional event. This is in equal measure a high-spirited ball in a unique atmosphere and a fashionable highlight of the ball season.” To give you an idea of how important Opernball is, it includes Swarovski and Ferrero Rocher among its sponsors. According to the tourism website austria.info, the event is shown on live tv.
Much as at Le Grand Bal, the dancing at Opernball includes waltzes, polonaises, polkas, and quadrilles. Carl Michael Ziehrer’s “Fan Polonaise” seems to be very popular, as it is on the list for both events. Last year’s performers included the Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra and Ballet, the Vienna State Opera Ballet School, and the Vienna Opera Ball Orchestra, numerous soloists, and debutante dancers from the Elmayer Dance School. You can download last year’s program on the website.
The Opernball is held in the Weiner Staatsoper (State Opera House), an elaborate Renaissance Revival building designed by August Siccardsburg and Eduard van der Null (Brook 140-141). Like the Hofburg Complex, the Weiner Staatsoper is located on the Ringstrasse, a circular boulevard containing many of the city’s most important buildings. The Ringstrasse was commissioned by Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph in the 1880s (Brook 32-33).
Another ball of great importance is the Ball of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Philharmonikerball). It has been hosted by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at its home venue, the Musikverein, since 1924. The event will next take place on January 23, 2014. According to the ball’s official website, “Once a year during “Fasching’, the Vienna Musikverein transforms itself from a venerated concert auditorium into an elegant dance hall and provides a stunning backdrop for the Vienna Philharmonic Ball, an event which has been a highlight of this festive season in Vienna for several decades.”
The Philharmonikerball has all the same elements as the other balls previously discussed — dancing (including Viennese waltz, polka, polonaise, and quadrille), music by a variety of noted performers, celebrity guests, debutante dances from the Elmayer school, and compulsory formal attire.
There are many more than I can possibly mention, but isn’t the “Ball of the Viennese Coffee House Owners” possibly the most Viennese thing you could possibly imagine? I love it!
One thing kept catching my attention. On several of the events’ websites, there was information about applying to be a debutante dancer, and it was mentioned a few times that you have to be able to Viennese Waltz to the left. For those of you who don’t know, it is much easier to do Viennese to the left than it is to the right. This is due to both the alignment between partners and the fact that most people are best at rotating counterclockwise. Therefore, debutantes are only really doing the most basic form of the dance. I hate to say it, but as a ballroom dancer, this breaks the spell for me just a little. Opernball actually provides an instructional video on the Viennese Waltz. It really amuses me for some reason, but I am also bothered by the fact that they don’t ever use their heels, which would be a huge sin in competitive ballroom.
According to my Frommer’s guide, it is customary to go out for breakfast with your group of friends after attending a ball. Perhaps you could go to one of those famous Viennese coffee houses, which could (and very well may) be a post in their own right. Fun fact: I have been told that the same custom applies if you go to the Copacabana.
Just in case I haven’t stirred up your imaginations enough already, I leave you with videos from the most recent Le Grand Bal, Opernball and Ball der Wiener Kaffeesieder. You can also browse Dresscode, an online magazine specifically about Viennese ballroom fashion. Happy dream-dancing, everyone!
Brook, Stephen et al. DK Eyewitness Travel: Vienna. New York: DK Publishing, 2012.
McNamee, Dardis & Maggie Childs. Frommer’s Vienna & the Danube Valley. 8th ed. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2011.