The Magazine

Gotta Dance

With or without men, in search of romantic Vienna.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By SARA LODGE
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Everyone has a ball in Vienna.

Between December and March, every weekend, in palaces and hotels and church halls in the Austrian capital, somebody is holding a dance. There is the Sugarbakers' Ball, where you can cakewalk with a confectioner; there is the Coffeehouse Owners' Ball, which runs very latte; and of course, the Opera Ball, whose tickets hit a note that few can reach.

Further down the scale, there's a Roofers' Ball, a Shoemakers' Ball, a Policemen's Ball (not secret, but closed to the public), and possibly even a Parking Attendants' Ball: You can't buy tickets for that one; you are given them.

I had long dreamed of waltzing to the strains of Strauss in a city that looks as if it is built of marzipan. But I don't have a fairy godmother, and I don't have a romantic partner. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. Balls without men--why not? I placed a call to my Danish friend Ilse who, among many admirable qualities, is red-haired, feisty, and fearless.

"We're going to a ball in Vienna," I told her. "You'd better practice reversing in heels."

It isn't, in principle, difficult to get a last-minute ticket to a Viennese ball: Many only issue tickets in the week before they take place. But you have to be quick. I just missed tickets for the Circle of Industry and Technology Ball (I imagine they dance to the Electric Light Orchestra). Instead, I ended up with tickets to the Altkalksburger Ball.

Who or what was the Altkalksburger? Reader, I hadn't the faintest idea. But the ball cost 50 euros a ticket, and it was in the attractive Auersperg Palace. What could possibly go wrong?

"Maybe the Altkalksburger is the Austrian name for the League of Frustrated Fascists," mused Ilse, when I told her. "Or maybe it's the Old Age Pensioners' Ball."

We might be shimmying with a zimmer for all I knew. "It'll be fun," I assured her.

In the best tradition of Cinderella, we were running late. Ilse's flight was delayed. I had just stepped off a train without a dress. That is, I was not embarrassingly unclothed--this was reserved for later in the evening--but I didn't own a floor-length gown. Viennese balls are very strict about their dress code. Although at some traditional balls men wear leather shorts and green hats with feathers in them, exposure of the female ankle results in mirth and shame.

The receptionist at our hotel took pity on me. "You need to go to Peek and Kloppenburg," she said.

Peek and Kloppenburg is a department store a few metro stops west of the town center. At first sight it seemed an unlikely place to find a ball dress: It was full of T-shirts, socks, button-down shirts, and babywear. But rounding a corner at random I heard a noise reminiscent of a seabird colony in nesting season. Following the shrieks and chatter, I came upon an extraordinary sight: hundreds of dresses in ruby, gold, aquamarine, electric blue, fuchsia, and silver, and amongst them all the sisters and mothers and best friends and boyfriends and grandmothers of all the women under 40, in the whole of Vienna, simultaneously helping them choose a frock.

Finding a dress was easy; finding a place to try it on was nearly impossible. I ended up with a fetching strapless number in black tulle with a spider web of silver sequins curling around one hip. It was definitely floor length. Indeed it was so floor length (I'm five-foot-five) that when I swept down a staircase I was liable to take everything on the staircase with me from cake crumbs to potted plants. I felt very elegant.

When we were finally in our cab, my skirts frothing over most of the backseat, and traveling through a starlit Vienna, I was aglow with happiness. The air was clear and cold; in a few days it would snow. The baroque Auersperg Palace was all I could have hoped. With marble staircases curving upward to east and west, there were sweeping opportunities to rival Scarlett O'Hara's. The rooms were as pretty as patisserie, with vanilla stucco friezes of Roman wrestlers and pistachio paint work. In the main salon I heard with delight a real orchestra striking up the waltz from The Merry Widow.

But what of the Altkalksburger? They were, Dear Reader, the alumni of a rather exclusive Viennese private school. Ilse and I are both thirtysomething, and we had stumbled into a prom.

All balls in Vienna begin with the debutantes dancing. These young ladies, attending their first ball, are dressed in white gowns with white gloves and posies and partnered by gauche young men in evening dress. It is the terpsichorean equivalent of first communion. The young people are prepared by dancing schools for weeks beforehand. Anxious parents crowd around, dewy-eyed, to watch them twirl their way into tradition.

It's worth seeing--though it was with a mixture of horror and relief that I later in the evening saw these impeccable young couples doing everything that normal teenagers do: cricking their necks examining their own up-dos in every available mirror, rapaciously snogging in corners, stuffing cake into their mouths with dress shirt unbuttoned and bow tie dangling, and smoking cigarettes while chasing one another down corridors to the disco room.

Once the debutantes have done their display dance, the floor is free for all. At the Altkalksburger Ball, Strauss waltzes were interspersed with rumbas, tangos, and foxtrots. I was delighted to see older couples launching into relaxed routines. Despite the floor-length gowns, some of the ladies showed evidence of bohemianism. One had scarlet hair. Two sported tattoos. I had leisure to examine these largely because Ilse and I were not, ourselves, dancing. We were, as the inglorious phrase has it, sitting out.

We were also standing out. Viennese society is relatively closed and conservative at the best of times. To the Altkalksburger we probably looked like parrots that happened to have found their way into a penguin parade. It was charming to listen to the orchestra and watch the couples swish past, but we wanted to join the dance. We were obviously going to have to score some men.

Ilse is better at this than I am. Long before I was conscious of him she had spotted the only thirtysomething man in the room. In a matter of moments she had thrust a camera into his hands: "Could you possibly take our picture?" she asked. But of course.

He was a big-headed lawyer from Bratislava, but he could dance. Finally, I was waltzing. I was getting all I could wish of the dizziness I crave: that particular bliss that consists of turning and turning in a pair of confident arms as the music swirls and the lights flash past. It is a fairground pleasure for adults. I was out of breath and exceedingly pink and my dress--alas--my dress was, as my partner could not avoid occasionally stepping on its voluminous tulle, slipping ever lower toward a point when it would part company with my upper body altogether.

Luckily, very few people spotted the wardrobe malfunction. I simply clutched my partner and my dress simultaneously, as one might in the event of sudden gunfire, and backed off the dance floor very slowly.

"Are British women always so affectionate?" asked Herr B, enjoying my predicament.

From that point, I danced with one hand holding up my morals, which was awkward. But I did hook Ilse up with a nice violinist when the orchestra wasn't playing, so at least she was dancing, too. We drank Sekt (sparkling wine) and spritzers. And at midnight everyone crammed into the main ballroom for the Public Quadrille.

This is a formal tradition and an excuse for mayhem. Couples gather in fours, facing one another. They bow and curtsey in stately fashion. They walk toward one another and then walk back; they exchange partners. This begins slowly and then gathers an increasingly frantic pace. In the "gallop" that follows, couples join hands and polka down the room at breakneck speed. They form an arch through which subsequent couples dance before themselves becoming part of the ever-growing human tunnel.

The ball ended at 4 A.M., but Ilse and I left the last couple of hours to the teenagers. If our first experience of a Viennese ball had not been a social triumph, it had, at least, not been an outright disaster. Next time, we would choose an event more likely to attract princes in their prime. And I would learn to distinguish dainty tripping from unintentional stripping.

Still, I was glad I hadn't waited for a fairy godmother to call before I made my way to a Viennese ball. Cinders, as they say, are doing it for themselves.

Sara Lodge, lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth Century Poetry and Jane Eyre: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism.