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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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.