Like Cinderella, I am dying to go to the ball. I love dressing up. I have some great rhinestones and even took ballroom dance lessons (surprisingly good exercise!). But, lucky for me, I don’t have to wait for my fairy godmother to procure an invitation from the palace. I just need to head to Vienna (never a hardship, the city is stunning, the food fantastic and the people friendly).
Vienna hosts over 450 balls every year and they are part of a long tradition. Way back in the day, when Marie Teresa was Empress, regular people celebrated the period before Lent by donning masks and, safe in their anonymity, roamed the streets mocking the nobility. This made the Empress a little cranky so she ordered that all festivities had to take place indoors. The nobles were happier and began hosting elaborate exclusive balls.
Much to her disappointment, her son and heir, Joseph II had more enlightened socialist beliefs. He thought all his subjects should be able to party. So, in 1773, he opened up the Hofburg Palace balls to everyone (as long as they could dress appropriately) and the public ball was born. It also exposed the aristocracy to the vulgar dance of the common people known as the waltz. This shocking dance was considered immoral as couples danced so close together.
Unsurprisingly the dance became hugely popular and balls became the rage, demand outstripped the supply of ballrooms in the Palace. Soon ballrooms were springing up all over Vienna to house the dances sponsored by different organizations and occupations.
Today, you can buy tickets to attend the balls of the coffee house owners, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, army officers or even the atomic energy agency staff. The Red Cross Ball opens the season on November 15. It raises money to benefit children. Proceeds from the Life ball helps people living with aids. Or perhaps you’d prefer one of the oldest balls, The Emperor’s (or Grand) ball which kicks off the New Year at the Hofberg Palace, You can get a sugar high indulging in candy at the Bonbon ball and vote for Miss Bonbon, the sweetest girl of the evening. Maybe you’d rather splurge on the celebrated Opernball held in the opera house, transformed into a ballroom for the night where a box costs 18,000 euro.
These balls all require formal dress… black tie or tails for men and long dresses for women, any color but white unless you are debutante. Evenings typically begin around 9 pm with an opening ceremony of a few speeches, a performance of some kind and the presentation of the debutantes. Wear comfortable shoes and take a couple lessons because the Viennese take their dancing seriously. With a cry of “Alles Walzer” the waltzing begins. Tango, foxtrot and polkas may follow. At midnight everyone struggles to complete the quadrille and the galop dances without falling over each other. Locals, who may attend several balls during the season, often skip the early hours, showing up after 11 when the serious dancing starts. Things don’t wrap up until after 4 am.
Even then the night is not over. Coffee houses and restaurants are filled with people in their finery eating sausages before they finally go home to change before heading off to work or if they are lucky, to sleep.
If formal wear is not your thing, the Wallflower Ball encourages grey or beige attire and gives a prize for the drabbest outfit, at the Rosenball the more outlandish the better, think lady gaga meets disco on steroids, while at the Bad Taste Ball you can wear whatever you want!
I hope to channel my inner Cinderella by going the Rudolfina-Redoute where women must wear a mask and can ask any man they wish to dance. It takes place March 3, which happens to be my birthday. Must get shopping for those glass slippers…