Journeys: Imperial Subjects of Dance

  • Nick Passmore

I went to Vienna to waltz. Specifically, I went to waltz at the Rudolfina-Redoute, one of the city’s 300 formal balls held during Fasching, the carnival season between New Year’s and the beginning of Lent. The Rudolfina-Redoute is one of only 10 balls held at the imperial Hofburg Palace, and it is the grandest of the masked balls.

Rudolfina is a conservative Catholic student society, and its ball represents one of the delightful contradictions that mark contemporary Austria: Although Rudolfina is a very exclusive, invitation-only organization with roots in the country’s imperial past, anyone can buy a ticket to its ball—and thousands do, just for the pleasure of waltzing to the best music in the most elegant surroundings.

Originating in Vienna in the 18th century, the dance in 3¼4-time evolved out of the lander, an exuberant country dance enjoyed by peasants but frowned upon by polite society accustomed to the controlled formality of the minuet. After all, the man not only held the woman in his arms as they danced but also clasped her body to his, “and thus whirling about went on in the most indecent position,” as one account of the day put it. The liberating changes unleashed by the French Revolution and the rise of Romanticism, however, eventually forced even the crusty old Hapsburgs to relent, and soon the waltz was being danced as enthusiastically at imperial balls as at country inns. Raised to the height of popularity in the 19th century by the city’s native sons, Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr., and having survived the fall of the Hapsburgs, the Modernist movement, and the coming and going of Hitler, the dance today is so embedded in Viennese culture that the “Blue Danube Waltz” is the country’s unofficial national anthem.

H.L. Mencken once observed that the waltz “never quite goes out of fashion,” and in Vienna, where the present so evidently takes its cue from the past, it is not surprising that the 19th-century dance has survived and even prospered here as nowhere else. The Rudolfina-Redoute is a perfect microcosm of how Vienna readily accepts the impact of its past on contemporary life.

While the Rudolfina is one of the most prestigious balls, there are other, less rarefied opportunities to waltz. Each profession has its own ball, from celebrations organized by lawyers and chimney sweeps to the Coffee House Owners Ball and the Confectioners Ball. The most celebrated of these is the Opera Ball, which is held in the Baroque Vienna Opera House. The opera’s stage and auditorium are converted into one huge dance floor, and a committee of the jeunesse dorée of Viennese society dance the traditional opening polonaise before the 6,000 guests take to the floor. It is the one occasion when the heavily subsidized opera makes a profit.

The only catch for me to this grand waltzing scenario is that I had not taken dance lessons since I was 12 years old; my waltzing ability had atrophied so that all I could manage now was a slow shuffle-shuffle-turn-turn. But no fear, an hour’s waltz lesson at the hands of a master promised to reawaken my long-dormant skills. Perhaps.

At the Tanzschule Elmayer, Vienna’s preeminent dance school run by dance and etiquette arbiter Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, our group began with the box step, then progressed to quarter turns, and then half turns. I was beginning to feel something akin to optimism about this evening’s approaching ordeal when our instructor announced that at the ball everyone would be dancing at twice the speed of our sedate lesson.

Things rapidly disintegrated as the pace hastened. Here I was with a beautiful girl in my arms, and although she was a far more proficient dancer than I, her Manolo Blahniks soon became badly scuffed as we attempted more and more dizzying turns at an increasingly frenzied tempo. At that point I realized that my years of getting by with one-two-three-shuffle-shuffle-shuffle would not cut it this evening. A feigned sprained ankle began to sound like a good idea.

Decked out in my black-tie finery, still thoroughly unprepared for the evening’s raison d’être, I set out for the ball. Tuxedos are mandatory, white tie is favored by the serious waltzers, and the Rudolfina and their fellow students sport a wide array of military cadet–style uniforms topped by 19th-century student caps bearing the colors of their club or society.

There was a frisson of expectation in the air as we climbed the magnificent staircase of the Hofburg Palace and made our way through the crowds toward Festsaal, the main ballroom and the site of the opening formalities. Hundreds of glamorous young women, white-gloved, bare-shouldered, and bejeweled, wore shimmering ball gowns of silk and satin. Some women wore masks; others just carried them for coquettish effect. Cats were the most popular, and birds a close second for the opportunity to display exotic plumage.

When the Rudolfina fanfare sounded, I found a spot at the very rear of the low mezzanine surrounding the main dance floor to watch the unfolding spectacle below. First the debutantes, all in white, were led in by their escorts, followed by the officers of the society and other dignitaries—a mesmerizing display of stately pageantry. Various speeches were made, proclamations read, and the national anthem sung. Finally, after a fine-tuned demonstration polonaise by the debutantes and their escorts and a stand-and-salute display by the students, the dance master proclaimed, Alles walzer. The orchestra struck up a Strauss waltz, and the party began.

Festsaal was the main focus area of the Rudolfina-Redoute, but it represented only part of the show. Off to the side were dozens of anterooms, where you could enjoy jazz, Latin, swing, and even disco music. Other rooms had bars, and in still others, you could just sit and marvel at the sight of the passing multitudes.

There was, for instance, a delightfully incongruous couple—a lovely tall girl, with a crew cut and a nose ring, on the arm of a young blade in a black velvet jacket with red, yellow, and blue frogging, immaculate white gloves with stiff gauntlets halfway to his elbows, a gold-embroidered beanie set at a jaunty angle, and a garishly colored sash. And there was a handsome middle-aged woman, whose hair was piled at least a foot high on top of her head and interwoven with black lace as in a Velázquez portrait (it seems the Hapsburg connection with Spain is still a reality), being escorted by an older gent with a pawnshop’s worth of medals on his chest, looking as if he could be the Rudolfina Lord High Admiral.

The night’s revelry featured a definite touch of Gilbert and Sullivan, including a handful of young men sporting what appeared to be fresh dueling scars on their cheeks. Perhaps they acquired them as members of some exclusive student dueling society, or, of course, the scars might have been fakes. Either way, they were sufficiently intimidating. So fantastic and surreal was the atmosphere created by the thronging crowds and the strange uniforms that it seemed plausible I might be called out for some imagined insult.

At midnight, 2,000 participants packed the Festsaal, arranged in long lines facing their partners in a quadrille, something that resembles an American square dance. The caller was a woman with a handsome voice and a shimmering black dress who kept giving instructions, Sechs, sieben, acht! All of the dancers would then execute a complicated series of steps involving a lot of bowing and curtsying and ending with foot-stomping and bursts of applause.

My group had a table in the Ceremonial Hall, a smaller (though still enormous) side ballroom, where the band was playing what could best be described as 1960s pop—“Love Me Do” and Elvis—to which a few determined traditionalists were trying to waltz. However, when the band changed the tempo and launched into “In the Mood,” the floor filled with exuberant Lindy enthusiasts. It might not have been the Festsaal, but with 52 chandeliers illuminating hundreds of jitterbugging dancers in the neoclassical splendor of a 19th-century ballroom, it presented a stunning sight nonetheless.

To this point, I had managed to avoid putting my dubious waltzing skills to the test, but time was running out. Since this was a masked ball, it was therefore a ladies invitational, and women outnumbered men in our group. I was eventually cajoled to venture out into the terra incognita of the dance floor, where by limiting ourselves to the simplest of steps and proceeding at a sedate pace, my partner and I managed to make a couple of circuits of the enormous ballroom without incident. Although I felt as if we were doing 30 mph in the breakdown lane while frighteningly proficient dancers swirled past in a blur, I survived, and once again swore that I would commit myself to dancing.

At 3 am, the main orchestra performed yet another Strauss waltz, eliciting a tangible wave of twirling and swirling. A couple in their 20s stood out from the crowd and perfectly embodied the waltz’s enduring beauty and history: he in white tie and tails, she in a wine-red satin dress with a train so long that she carried it over her arm. They effortlessly floated and glided with dizzying speed among the packed masses, lost in the magic of their own brilliance.

I may never learn to dance that gracefully, but at least I waltzed in Vienna. 

Information about the Vienna ball season can be found at the Austrian National Tourist Office’s web site, www.austria-tourism.at

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