WALTZING BY BLUE WATERS
In the midst of winter, cold and grey, Vienna comes alive with the jubilation of ball season namely ‘Fasching’ or Carnival. This is a proud tradition that has been passed down through generations since the 18th century. It continues to live today in a whirl of elegant revelry with opening ceremonies and fanfare that bring romance back into existence. With a dress code of black or white ties, long gowns and opera length gloves Austrians and visitors from all around the world can be seen dancing the waltz in three quarter time by the said ‘blue waters’ of the Danube. This season there are approximately 450 balls with January and February being the high points. Viennese balls are organized and held by various groups of professionals and social organizations. Tickets are open to the public making it accessible for everyone to follow the ritual stemming from the time of Emperor Joseph II (1765-1790).
Balls were originally reserved for nobility to which they would wear masks and costumes throughout private, ceremonial occasions. However, Emperor Joseph II followed in the philosophical footsteps of his mother, Empress Maria Theresia, in creating space for the common people and aristocracy to dance in the Redoute halls of the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace. This sparked the beginning of the public ball tradition in Vienna. There they emulated courtly customs of these festivities. Eventually, the upper crust was introduced to a dance originating from the lower classes, particularly the waltz. At the outset, the waltz and various versions of it was already a popular peasant dance in Bavaria, Tyrol, Bohemia and Austria in 16th century. It initially was deemed scandalous by high society since dancers held each other so closely that their faces touched. However, by the end of the eighteenth century it became very fashionable in Vienna. After the Congress of Vienna (1814/15), when influential figures of Europe met to bring order after Napoleon’s military campaigns, it spread like wild fire to other countries. This opened the door for society to celebrate the Viennese waltz at another level bringing it to international acclaim as the king of dances. Today balls normally open with an entrance of debutants and debutantes dressed in long, flowing white dresses and black tailcoats to prelude the call of “Alles Walzer,” everyone waltz. Other nostalgic remnants from times past that still remain, are the dance card, midnight interlude usually a quadrille and a formal ending. Another interesting chivalrous custom is the ‘Damenspende’, which is a chosen tribute for every lady as she enters the salon.
The ball season has already begun with the commencement of the Viennese Red Cross Ball (11.21.2014). To welcome the beginning of 2015, waltzers celebrated New Year’s Eve by dancing at Le Grand Ball in the sumptuous surroundings of the Hofburg. The Blumenball (flower ball, 1.16.2015) will transform the Rathaus (town hall) under a meridian sea of thousands upon thousands of flowers, supreme indulgence for the senses with this year’s theme ‘150 years of the Ringstraße.’ Some of the most high profile balls are the Vienna Ball of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1.22.2015), the Opera Ball (1.12.2014), and the Ball of the Viennese Coffee House Owners (2.6.2015) otherwise known as the Kaffeesiedler Ball. This ball in particular lures around 5,000 visitors to the Hofburg and Redoute salons where they wander from room to room through a fairytale cloud of gaiety. Afterwards, many end up in Cafe Landtmann brought by a horse and carriage shuttle (Fiaker) kissed awake by the fresh morning air. Other renowned balls include the Ball of the Green Cross - Hunters' Ball (Jägersball,1.26.2015), the Physicians' Ball (31.1.2015), and the Lawyers' Ball in the Imperial Palace (2.14.2015). Many balls donate proceedings towards special causes and charities. One such ball is the Life Ball (3.16.2015), an event that raises funds in support of research for AIDS/HIV. This ball has world wide prominence featuring the creme de la creme in live performances and international star attendees.
Carnival season is an extravagant affair, but it doesn’t have to empty your pocket book. There is no need to spend a fortune for ball gowns and tuxedos. Anyone who doesn’t have a dress or coattails can find suitable alternatives at modest rental fees in Viennese shops such as Kleiderverleih Rottenberg, Babsi’s Kostümverleih, Goldene Naht Rada, Art for Art, and Tails Rental in the Kostümhaus Wien. Rottenberg, for instance, has a wide selection and friendly service where one can rent a ball gown around 150 euros or tailcoats for 235, which includes adjustment and cleaning. Babsi's costume shop in the 18th district offers a selection of many carnival costumes as well as a large choice of ball gowns, tuxedos and tails. In-house tailoring and customized products are also offered there. If you’re looking for something more glamorous or vintage stop by the Art for Art, you can find more than 250,000 costumes in their wardrobe selection, which have been used over the last 60 years for the Federal Theatre (Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna Volksoper, Burgtheater, Academy Theatre).
At any rate, ball season is an occasion when romance comes alive despite the cynical grip on contemporary lifestyle. Even if romance isn’t on the priority list for 2015, why not put on some dancing shoes to experience a little of Vienna’s soul by waltzing beside blue waters?