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For more than two centuries Vienna has been the uncontested ball capital of the world. A unique blend of age-old Austrian traditions, magnificent court ceremonial and the trademark Viennese waltz has seen the capital’s ball industry turn into one of the nation’s best-loved exports.

Every year imitations play out in around 30 cities worldwide, from New York to Moscow. But nothing beats the original – the romance and charm puts the Viennese ball season in a league of its own.

Balls experienced their first flush of widespread popularity at the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15. Numerous royals and politicians from the length and breadth of Europe flocked to the capital of the Habsburg monarchy to redefine the continent’s borders in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The Viennese hosts made every effort to ensure that their venerable guests were entertained during their extended stays in the city. One distraction followed the next, but whatever they were, the proceedings were always heavily influenced by 18th century court ceremonial. Various aspects of this have survived, often with few changes, to the present day.

A feat of logistics

More than 450 balls take place in the Austrian capital every year, attracting anything up to 5,500 guests. What other European city can match this tradition? Given these numbers, slick organization is required, especially for the prestigious balls. They all take place in accordance with traditional rules. First, a ball committee must be appointed. Then there is an honorary committee made up of high-ranking public servants and other dignitaries. The highest-profile balls are normally hosted under the patronage of the Federal President. All names are printed on the invitation, which is in fact a beautifully designed pamphlet that also gives the date and venue, dress code, program and the admission charge. The boxes at the Opera Ball are extremely expensive, but despite the price tag they are highly sought after. The city’s other prestigious balls, such as those held in Hofburg palace, are considerably less costly. Tickets for general admission are significantly more affordable than table reservations. Wandering through the ball rooms between dances, or savoring the atmosphere at the buffet or cocktail bar are just some of the most enjoyable aspects of a Viennese ball night. Some events even install wine taverns complete with traditional Schrammelmusik for the night.

One of the most immediately obvious things about a genuine Viennese ball is the strict adherence to the dress code. Women are expected to wear full length gowns or traditional Austrian costume, while the gentlemen must wear tails or a tuxedo, giving them the opportunity to display their orders and badges of honor. At the opera ball it is strictly tails only. It should be noted that wearing a wristwatch is seen as something of a faux pas; a golden watch complete with chain is de rigeur. At the other balls, guests must wear a tuxedo or fine black suit with bow tie. Neck ties are taboo. In addition to the stylish clothing, the slick ceremonial program bears witness to the formality of the occasion.

Come waltzing

The ball is officially opened with a procession into the main hall led by the young ladies’ and gentlemen’s “committee”.

The girls opening a ball for the first time are called debutantes. This “debut” is part of the ritual which dates back to the days of the monarchy – the formal introduction into society. Dressed in a long white robe, with a coronet in their hair and long white gloves, they proceed onto the dance floor arm in arm with their tuxedoed escorts, usually to the music of the “Fächer-Polonaise” by Carl Michael Ziehrer, former chief conductor of the imperial court, which is played at practically all opening ceremonies. At the end of this solemn ritual comes a waltz – with the pairs turning anticlockwise. This is not as easy as it might sound and is perhaps one of the reasons why dance schools are so well attended. In Vienna alone there are over 30 of them. It is the schools that organize the opening ceremony, after having taught their students the necessary steps and held several rehearsals to inaugurate them into the secrets of the special choreography that they have devised. Great importance is attached to the aesthetic precision of the figures. Executed correctly, the rhythmic movements create a spellbinding visual in black and white. The opening ceremony is brought to a close when the call “Alles Walzer” is heard from the director of the dance school organizing the ball, inviting all of the guests onto the dance floor – this time to waltz in a clockwise direction.

Damenspende and Disco

Although every traditional ball opens the floor to dancers with a waltz, virtually every kind of formal dance will be represented during the course of the evening. While most of the music comes courtesy of orchestras and ensembles, many events also have discos.

A tradition dating from the first half of the 19th century is the “Damenspende”, a token gift presented to the ladies upon arriving at the ballroom. In the days of the monarchy this might have been an elaborately crafted bijou such as a mother-of-pearl fan. These days it could be an elegant watch, confectionery or a CD. In the era of gender equality, some balls also have a “Herrenspende” for men.

Midnight is a special time, whatever the ball. Ballgoers can expect concerts and performances, with highlights including specially choreographed sets by dance troupes from leading Viennese dance schools. Another midnight favorite is the quadrille, which has been danced since the 19th century. Thanks to its catchy melody, the most popular is the Fledermaus quadrille by Johann Strauss. The steps to this jaunty pair and group dance are fairly complicated and are explained in advance by the dance master. Not infrequently, however, the dance ends in good-humored chaos caused by some high-spirited dancers during the mad dash through the passages between the rows of dancers.At all events, it’s one way of giving renewed energy to tired dancers, who will need it, since the ball never ends before 5 am.

At all Viennese balls the official close is also a traditional affair. The lights in the ballroom are dimmed and the orchestra plays the slightly melancholic and downbeat waltz “Brüderlein fein, musst nicht gar so traurig sein” and the remaining revelers step out onto the dance floor for the last time. Many people end the night with a bowl of spicy goulash soup in one of the countless nearby coffee houses which are open at this early hour throughout the ball season. A hearty snack from a sausage stand is another popular option.

The Vienna Opera Ball

The ball to end all balls plays out at the Vienna State Opera each year. It is a major get-together for leading cultural figures, captains of industry and high-ranking politicians from Austria and abroad. In recent years the focus has shifted to give greater prominence to artists from the Vienna State Opera, who give the ball a special cachet all of its own.  It hardly comes as a surprise that this spectacle is broadcast live on television. The Opera Ball decor is unique:  hundreds of plants and sumptuous flower arrangements adorn the magnificent staircase and the foyer of the State Opera House. The ballroom is also festooned with thousands of flowers. It’s hard to believe that it was the scene of an opera performance just a couple of evenings previously. As soon as the curtain goes down on the final act, around 600 workers start to convert the opera house for the ball. The seats in the stalls are removed. A dance floor is constructed at stage height on top of a temporary scaffold over the orchestra pit. Instead of the wings, boxes are erected on three levels in line with those in the auditorium. Within around 70 hours the opera theater is thus transformed into a harmonious and festive golden ballroom.

The opening of the ball is celebrated as an act of state, as in the days of Emperor Franz Josef: to the sound of a fanfare, the head of state and the Austrian government appear in full regalia in the middle box of the State Opera House – the very box that used to be reserved for the Emperor. The 5,000 guests – women in evening dress, men in tails – stand while the Austrian and European anthems are played. A festive sight and one that is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Opera Ball and other balls held during the season throughout the Austrian capital.

Leading lights

For many Viennese it is not the Opera Ball but the Philharmonic Ball that represents the high point of the season. It enjoys the reputation of being a ball for artists organized by artists. While it is smaller and has a lower media profile, the quality of the guests is said to be superior. The world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic orchestra holds its ball in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein, one of the world’s most imposing concert halls, and familiar to TV viewers all over the globe as the venue of the New Year’s Day Concert. The Vienna Philharmonic itself plays only for the opening of the ball. The entrance of the guests of honor is accompanied by a festive fanfare specially composed for this ball by Richard Strauss. But then the Philharmonic players leave the stage to other musicians – after all it is their ball and they no doubt wish to dance themselves.

The title of the sweetest ball is claimed by the Bonbon Ball, which takes place in the Konzerthaus, home of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Up to 4,000 guests can dance in the four concert halls. A jury of leading society journalists selects a Miss Bonbon from the female guests. She is then weighed on a set of oversize steel scales, and her weight in confectioneries is donated to charity. Here, too, there are the debutantes in white, but the dress code is not generally as strict. Unlike at the Opera Ball and Philharmonic Ball, elegant evening wear is perfectly sufficient here.

The prestigious Coffeehouse Owners’ Ball is a slightly more formal affair. This ball is highly appreciated by the local population because of its typically Viennese ambience and is virtually regarded as a smaller version of the Opera Ball. It is the only ball to use all the ballrooms in the Hofburg, including the Redoutensäle and the elegant roof foyer with its view over nighttime Vienna. It is also the largest traditional ball in the Vienna carnival calendar, with about 6,000 guests. The opening ceremony at the Coffeehouse Owners’ ball is more than a match for the festivities at the Opera Ball and the young debutantes are equally as elegant. The Vienna State Opera Ballet also performs at this event, accompanied by the Opera Ball Orchestra.

Whereas the Coffeehouse Owners’ Ball has been in existence since only 1956, the Lawyers’ Ball (Juristen-Ball), which takes place in the Hofburg on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, can look back on a tradition that dates back almost 200 years. This classically elegant ball is opened, as one would expect, by the Austrian Minister of Justice and attracts lawyers and jurists from all over the world. Many international organizations arrange meetings to coincide with the ball.

2002 witnessed the introduction of the Johann Strauss Ball, which was created to give tourists access to the world of the traditional Viennese ball. It takes place in the Kursalon in Stadtpark where the Strauss brothers celebrated some of their greatest successes. The evening includes a three-course gala dinner and a special dance workshop which is intended to give newcomers a crash course on the mysteries of the Viennese waltz.

The last of the great traditional balls is the Rudolfina Redoute at Hofburg palace on the last Monday of the carnival season, or Fasching. It is organized by the Catholic couleur-wearing fraternity Rudolfina, which has a tradition dating back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Redoute is the only surviving masked ball of the many that used to take place and serves as a reminder of the original Fasching custom. Gentlemen dress in tails or tuxedo and, if they are members of the fraternity, their colored caps and ribbons. The ladies are in evening wear with many wearing a mask to cover their eyes, as in the operetta “Fledermaus”. This in turn gives them the right for the whole evening to ladies’ choice, until the demasking quadrille at midnight. After that both the gentlemen and the ladies have the right to choose their partners until the ball ends at 5 am.

Summer balls

Viennese society is particularly taken with two elegant summertime ball events. The first is  the 150-year-old Concordia Ball. The Waltz King Johann Strauss dedicated a series of his world-famous waltzes to the Concordia press club, and many of them are performed at this ball held in the Festsaal inside City Hall. Each year this journalism industry ball attracts more than 2,500 people including leading political, business, cultural and media personalities. Concordia marks this red letter day on the society calendar with an event that pays tribute to the very best in authentic Viennese ball tradition.

Fête Impériale is even more glamorous. This newcomer on the Viennese ball circuit first took place in the Spanish Riding School in 2010. The arena of the Winter Riding School, which normally plays host to the world-famous Lipizzan stallions, is transformed into a giant dance floor for the event. In fact, the same arena was used by Empress Maria Theresia for imperial celebrations. The Stallburg, the oldest renaissance square in the city, is transformed into a dance floor for the event, and the Summer Riding School is the perfect place to rub shoulders with VIP ballgoers. This magnificent summer ball has a similar format to the Opera Ball and includes an opening “committee” and midnight quadrille. In spite of these traditional features, this crossover event also includes contemporary elements. This winning formula has already seen the Fête Impériale establish itself among the greats on the Viennese ball calendar. The profits from the ball are used to support breeding and care programs for Europe’s oldest thoroughbreds.

Alternative balls

A slightly alternative but no less festive waltz is danced by Vienna’s gay and lesbian scene during the carnival season. The glitzy Rainbow Ball takes place in the historical setting of Parkhotel Schönbrunn. At this charity event, lesbians, gays and transsexuals also celebrate the traditional entry of the “committee” and the hectic midnight quadrille. This unique get-together is open to heterosexual ballgoers, too. Complete with house and disco tunes, the Rosenball at Palais Auersperg has also become another glamorous highpoint of the gay community season. The dress code is simple: anything that attracts attention!

There are another two charity events that have become part and parcel of the Vienna ball season. One is the Vienna Refugee Ball, which has been held during Fasching since 1995. Under the patronage of the Mayor of Vienna, it offers a wide-ranging program of multicultural music in the setting of Vienna’s City Hall. The profits from the event are used to help refugees who are housed at Vienna’s Integrationshaus. Now internationally high-profile, the Life Ball is two years older. Held in support of various AIDS organizations, it takes place in early summer. It is also Austria’s most important fashion event and takes place in and around City Hall. Among the highlights of the evening is a fashion show by renowned designers – held outdoors before an audience of more than 40,000, and featuring top models and also international celebrities.  The Life Ball is an opulent and open-hearted celebration of life, and what better backcloth could there be than a vibrant city like Vienna!

Addresses

Opera Ball, Vienna State Opera, Opernring 2, 1010 Vienna, www.wiener-staatsoper.at

Vienna Philharmonic Ball, Musikverein, Musikvereinsplatz 1, 1010 Vienna, www.wienerphilharmoniker.at

Bonbon Ball, Konzerthaus, Lothringerstrasse, 1030 Vienna, www.konzerthaus.at

Coffeehouse Owners’ Ball, Hofburg, 1010 Vienna, www.bonbonball.at

Lawyers’ Ball, Hofburg, 1010 Wien, www.juristenball.at

Johann Strauss Ball, Kursalon im Stadtpark, Johannesgasse 33, 1010 Vienna, www.johannstraussball.com

Rudolfina Redoute, Hofburg, 1010 Vienna, www.rudolfina.at

Concordiaball, Rathaus, 1010 Vienna, www.concordiaball.at

Fête Impériale, Spanish Riding School, 1010 Vienna, www.fete-imperiale.at

Rainbow Ball, Parkhotel Schönbrunn, 1130 Vienna, www.regenbogenball.at

Vienna Refugee Ball, 1010 Vienna, www.integrationshaus.at

Life Ball, Rathaus, 1010 Vienna, www.lifeball.org

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