All Balls and No Knickers


This is my sixteenth January in Vienna. You think I would be used to it by now. The dark mornings, the cold, unremitting skies, and the looks of resignation local people share as they collectively battle the snow, the rain, the wind and indifference to each other. It is almost as if the city has been covered with a grey sheet signalling the end of Adventzeit (Christmas) and Sylvester (New Year’s Eve), and now is a time for reflective calm and a reordering of the senses.

Of course, back home in the UK, where it is never cold and never rains, men I know of a certain age and physical constitution seem intent on using January for experiments in abstaining from alcohol. But this being Vienna (motto: a little bit, often) the festivities of December rumble on picking up giddy and graceful momentum as the city plays host to numerous events designed to showcase the best and worst in dancing. I speak, of course, of balls! All 450 of them.

Although technically it begins on the 11th November each year, some people around the world will know the period before Easter as Carnival, loosely described as a joyful time where indifferent neighbours come together to drink, dance and party in the run-up to Lent. (Lent is a period when Catholics give something up – chocolate, alcohol, their hypocrisy – hoping it will get them into heaven.)

Until I came to Vienna, Carnival, in the UK “the carnival”, meant two things: first, an annual event, usually in summer, typified by crappy floats, questionable marching bands and local beauties elected “Carnival Queen”; and secondly, yet more important to my social development, it meant being carried away aged about 4 by a man in a gorilla costume. Significantly, and this is what they don’t tell you in certain clubs in London populated by men called Romero and Carlos, it doesn’t require caipirinhas and an appreciation of samba. No. The Brazilian Carnival (which only lasts for a pithy six weeks) is just a small part of the Carnival industry. Here in Vienna-Land it’s all about the soft-shoe shuffle, big dresses (sometimes traditional Dirndl and Lederhosen), parquet floors and the guy that wrote the music for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Known locally as Fasching it traditionally culminates in Faschingsdienstag (Carnival Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday if you like pancakes) sometime in February, possibly March, and doubles as a massive chance to show off one’s fancy dress eccentricities and one’s more “humorous” side (in Germany they cut off each other’s ties). In truth, however, the balls continue right up to June, probably to service the non-Catholics. And so if you want you can visit the Wiener Techno Ball, the Zückerbäckerball , the Polizeball , the Hofburgball, the BonBonball, the Ball der Wiener Philharmoniker, The Wiener Akademikerball, the Ball der Wiener Kaffsieder and many, many more to numerous to mention.

I myself flirted briefly with the concept of ball going as a student and made a name for myself by choice of excellent footwear and for passing out in the toilets of the Sports’ Ball in my first year (due to some dodgy seafood). But such events were just an excuse to get hammered in a rented dinner jacket and are incomparable to the opulence and grandeur of your average hoedown in the palatial surrounds of the Hofburg.

Arguably, the two most famous are the OpernBall (Opera Ball) held on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and the Life Ball in May. The Opera Ball is the society “highlight” of the year, a televised extravaganza where the great and the good, the beautiful and the outrageous (local dignitaries, business people, politicians and the stars) shell out ridiculous amounts of money to sit in an opera box and do what “celebs” do when crammed into the narrow passageways of the State Opera House. The Life Ball on the other hand is a much more dignified affair; a turbo-charged all singing, all dancing gay-friendly party in Vienna’s town hall that raises money and awareness for AIDS charities. It’s seriously big, it’s seriously camp and it attracts serious guests from around the world.

But more about them nearer the time. Instead, some pictures:

ZückerbäckerballBall 2Life Ball 2008, artists of 'Afrika! Afrika!'

The ball season is, of course, synonymous with Vienna. It is a defining characteristic along with the cafes and sausage stands. Yet finding someone that is actually going to one this year is proving elusive and I begin to wonder how integral the ball experience really is to the average Wiener, whoever that may be. That is not to say that local people do not attend. They must do. It can’t just be tourists and a few thousand waltzing throwbacks throwing down some shapes on the dancefloor, making up the bulk of the estimated half a million tickets sold. At least I hope not.

So I embark on some comprehensive research and ask my wife. No she assures me, the ball season is important, maybe not every year but people do attend and they do the prep by enrolling in dancing school to hone their skills (schools are booming I am told due to the effects of Dancing Stars, the Austrian dance show based on the BBC’s gift to European-wide cultural harmony, Strictly Come Dancing).

At which point it now seems prudent to make a confession: in those 16 years I have *whisper it* never been to a ball (no fairy godmother). I am not sure why but it also took me 15 years to get on skis (and ironically, 15 seconds to fall off them). Maybe it is because I cannot dance, in any classical sense. Perhaps it is the thought of looking like a penguin. And I have never really fancied lederhosen or a hunting outfit, although this isn’t dependent on the ball season as such, more a lack of self-awareness and a few too many snifters. It might just be that my wife has her reputation to think of. I don’t know. But rest assured, when I dust down the Fred Astaire’s, you’ll be the first to know about it. Until then, show me that Schmuddel Wetter and, as Thomas Schäfer Elmyer, Vienna’s most celebrated dancing teacher and purveyor of manners and etiquette, would say: “Alles Walzer!”

(c) 2013 RJ Barratt

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