Of course I’ve heard about balls, Strauss, and waltzing, but it was always through a corrupting American filter. I learned how to waltz in gym class in fourth and fifth grades, but it was more about not contracting cooties from the girls than about where I was supposed to put my feet. I also slaved through a few years of piano lessons where I may have butchered a simplified Strauss song. But while my parents also tried to get me to respect the classics, I didn’t know the difference between “the father” and “the younger.” And finally, a few years back, I can remember hearing that Paris Hilton was invited to a ball in Vienna, but I had a hard time reconciling the idea with my image of Cinderella.
So armed with my vast experience, here I am, in Vienna, apparently during ball season, and with nothing to lose. Yet one cannot just show up at a ball. Doesn’t one need to be invited? Even Cinderella fell under a blanket invitation. But fear not, within a week of our arrival we were invited to not just one ball, but two. Stephan, Ashley’s sponsor at BOKU, always goes to the BOKU Ball with a load of friends and we can come with them. This amazes me a little, because he seems so cool and my image of a ball is, well, more to the stuffy side. Then, all the Fulbright fellows are invited to the TU Ball, a ball sponsored by the Technical University. And since all the fellows are American, the Fulbright office has the foresight to sponsor three waltzing lessons in the hopes that we won’t make fools of ourselves.
The first lesson starts slow and Ashley and I are confident, having just completed five salsa lessons at home. But just because we can move our left feet on command doesn’t prepare us for all the spinning. We start with a waltz in a box, then quarter turns, and finally half turns. I don’t last half a song before I have to sit down. The second lesson a few days later yields similar results, and I’m starting to get a little nervous. There is no third lesson for us, because it’s the same night as the BOKU Ball.
Between lessons, Ashley and I worry about what we’re going to wear to the balls. Ashley brought a black dress from home, knowing that a ball was likely in our future. But I purposely did not bring anything formal, since any day I don’t wear jeans is a dress-up day. But Stephan is there to rescue us again, with an extra smoking jacket (isn’t that something that Hugh Hefner wears between parties?) and tuxedo pants that are exactly my size. After a morning of shopping, I also acquire a shirt for under the smoking jacket, cheap black dress shoes, and a black bow tie. I’m set.
In the taxi on the way to Stephan’s house for the pre-ball mixer, Ashley and I wonder if this isn’t just a cruel joke on the Americans. Tell them to dress up in these funny costumes and see if they actually show up. But on the way to the front door I spot a similarly dressed penguin through the drapes. I guess it is for real.
Ashley and I split up for the rides to the Hofburg, the imperial palace of Kings, Emperors, and Presidents since 1438. Just a few days earlier we had been there to tour one of the many museums in the complex and was amazed at the ornate formality that royalty submit themselves to twenty-four hours a day. And now the chandeliers are lit for me. We’re a little late, the main ballroom is already packed for the opening ceremony. The walk up the red carpeted stairs was awesome enough, but I find an opening at stage right just in time for the head dignitary to proclaim something in German and join her partner for the first waltz, soon joined by the other gold-encrusted deans on the dance floor. The ballroom is right out of Cinderella, with a three-story ceiling of painted pastoral scenes, a ring of slightly elevated tables around a huge wooden dance floor, and a stage with a string orchestra playing Strauss.
Immediately I see that everyone is not in what I know to be formal attire. From my earlier tour of the palace, I knew that in order not to discriminate against lower classes the Emperor would hold audience with anyone that wore their traditional clothing. That tradition apparently continues to hold true for balls, if you can’t afford a tuxedo (or be lucky enough to fall into one), then you can wear the clothes that most people own anyway. So next to the tux and black dress is a lederhosen and dirndl. I start feeling good in my smoking jacket.
Soon, I find Ashley at our group’s table in the rock and roll room. Much to my amazement, a ball is not a singular waltz through the ballroom, but a two-step through the country room, a hustle through the disco room, and a twist through the classic rock room. The ball encompasses something like 20 rooms over two floors of the palace, including band rooms devoted to different musical genres, bar rooms to take the thirst off, and even a karaoke room. On our table are maps so that we can find our way around. When the band starts in our room, Stephan and his friends hit the dance floor. Only hours later do I realize that I’ve come to the ball with the rowdiest crowd. They start dancing just after 9 pm, and except for periodic drink stops and trips to the thrown room, they don’t sit down until almost 5 am. They prefer the rock room and don’t seem put off by the Bruce Springsteen, Donna Summer, and Eagles covers. Ashley and I head for the main ballroom since that is why we are here.
Before we hit the big leagues with our bush league ability, we notice that the lowest common denominator in dancing skills is amazingly high. Even in the rock and country rooms everyone on the floor seems to know what they are doing and nobody is just winging it. But on the waltzing floor, in that amazing room, I can feel the pressure. I muster all I learned 35 years ago and in the last week, and we jump into an eddy of flowing dancers. Firstly, I’m thankful that no one is really counting to see if our spins are exactly 180 degrees. It’s hard to get all the way around without losing the blood flow to the head. And secondly, I’m thankful that this is a slow one. Amazingly, we pull it off. Yes, I stepped on Ashley’s toes more than once, and I had to stop a few times to get my feet under me again. But for a few awesome 20-second intervals there we were waltzing at a ball in Vienna!
We make periodic appearances back in the rock room, but we also hit the other rooms (OK, not the karaoke). Downstairs is a room for Austrian folk music and dancing, more of the people than the aristocratic waltzes – two violins, an accordion, and a standup bass. Most of the dancers are young and wear traditional clothes. We hold up the wall near the band, watching. There’s an elderly couple out there too, perhaps in their mid-80s. His bow tie matches her turquoise dress. They don’t miss a step!
By 4 am I start to yawn. I’ve already done more dancing in the last few hours than I’ve done in the last few decades. But Stephan’s wife, Bernadette, says that maybe in 20 years they will go home this early, but not tonight. The rock band plays their last song at 4:30 (they have great stamina too), and we do one last waltz in the main ballroom before heading downstairs. We see the last notes in the folk room, and though the disco room is still thumping, we move out into the morning. The dancers are finally tired. Back at Stephan’s house we gather in the kitchen for their traditional post-ball feast, white sausage and beer. By 6:30 I’m finally asleep on his couch.
The girls, who had slept at Stephan’s house while we were dancing, woke us at 8:30 and we had a sleepy cab ride home. They watched two or three movies in a row, allowing us to rest our tired feet. The TU Ball is this Thursday, and we’ll do it all over again.