Ball Season in Vienna

Once again I find myself needing to recap months at a time on this blog, only to ask myself: But what did I even do in the last months? As it turns out (and I didn't realize until now), the answer is: A LOT. 

So let's dive in, starting with the earliest first: 

The IAEA Ball

Vienna is one of the few places I know of that still has a strong culture of balls. The official start date of Ball Season takes place sometime in November, and reaches it's peak in January and February. According to the Vienna city website, over 450 balls take place each year. Frankly, that is astounding to me. How, when the rest of the world casually swapped balls for gala fundraisers (on one side of the economic spectrum) and house parties (on the other side of the economic spectrum), did Vienna manage to hold on?

The balls tend to be split by networks or profession. For example, you have one ball for lawyers, another for bakers, another for Coffee House Owners (no kidding), one for the IAEA section of the United Nations, one for people who like hiphop, etc. The balls vary in size and formality, but if you look around, you are bound to find one that you are interested in. 

Rumor is that there are tours groups (typically from Asia) that offer ball seasons to young women who want to feel like a European princess for a winter. The ladies are put up in hotels with chaperones, given dancing lessons, taken shopping for gowns, and provided with well groomed young men to be their prince for the evening - and every evening, of every ball they attend. Google has yet to confirm this for me.  

We attended the IAEA Ball, one of the largest in Vienna, with a small group of good friends. Finding a ball gown was easy enough for me, though a tuxedo for Jacob was another story. The dress codes are strict - men must wear a tuxedo and bowtie, or will be barred entry. Bowties are sold at the door at appropriately exorbitant prices for anyone left in a pinch. Another option (as it is a United Nations organization hosting the ball) is to wear your "national dress". We considered seeing if Jacob could get away in a pair of Levi's as "American national dress", but thankfully a friend came through with a borrowed tuxedo that was exactly Jacob's size.

Prior to the ball start we met for coffee and cake at Landtmann's, a classic Viennese cafe close to the Hofburg Palace, where the event was held. I may be sentimental about my family's history in Vienna (I have pictures of my Grandparents dancing at the famous Vienna Opera Ball in the 1970's), but sitting in that cafe made me feel like I was connected to ball-goers spanning across hundreds of years, all meeting in this particular cafe for a glass of Sekt before going to dance the night away.

And the truth is, in many ways, it seemed like the balls hadn't changed a bit since then - except that, back then, everyone would have known how to dance. And no one would have been taking cell-phone selfies. Our group had met the week previously to practice our two steps, rhumbas, and viennese waltzes, but unfortunately one evening of instruction was not enough for Jacob and I to counteract a lifetime of ignorance. (Although we tried, and had lots of fun)

The ball itself was made up of several halls, each offering different types of music. In the main hall an orchestra played the classic Viennese waltzes and ballrooms dances, while adjunct rooms offered Jazz, Latin, an IAEA talent show (which I avoided), a Beatles cover band, and a "silent disco". The silent disco (relatively new to the ball repertoire I am sure), consisted of people putting on headphones and self consciously dancing to the music no one else can hear. If someone understands the appeal, feel free to explain it to me. 

Jacob and I stuck mostly to the Beatles cover-band and main hall, though our dancing skills were far from impressive. Thankfully, however, with so many cultures and walks-of-life represented, there was by no means an expectation that everyone would be an expert at the dizzying Viennese waltz. A galant and practiced dancer from our group did ask me to dance once or twice, which provided me with the distinct sensation of, "Oh. So that is how this dance is supposed to go". That is, I imagine, the advantage of wearing a long and flowing skirt to a ball - no one can see that your feet are just trying to keep up.

Aside from the dancing, which many people were very serious about, the main pastime of the ball was people-watching. The parade of gowns and national dress was truly spectacular; an activity that could have easily occupied you for the entire evening. 

Our group had reserved a table away from the main area of the ball so that we had a quiet place to retreat to whenever we wanted to rest our feet and escape the crowds for a few minutes. I was surprised when I picked up the menu of food that could be ordered to your table. The menu was short and did not contain the types of foods I would have imagined at a ball. Where was the beef tartare and caviar? Why was there goulash and sausage with bread on the menu? 

Come to find out, sausage with bread (with champagne of course) IS traditional ball food. This is, in fact, the true Viennese way to eat at a ball - and I love it. There was something so refreshing about pairing the opulence of a ball with the same no-nonsense food you would order from a Wurstelstand on the street. 

Scattered throughout the evening were ceremonies, such as the entrance of the debutantes, all dressed in white, to dance a Viennese waltz. At midnight everyone is taught to dance a quadrille by the Master of Ceremonies. Our group had stationed ourselves in the main hall well before midnight for this particular dance - only to find that a 70's cover band with afro wigs was performing past their time slot. At 20 past midnight we left the main hall during "It's Raining Men", and the quadrille began 15 minutes later. 

Jacob and I lasted until roughly 1:30 am before we decided to call it a night. By our party standards, 1:30 definitely qualified as dancing the night away. 

By the way, you can read more about the balls here - it is really fascinating: Vienna Ball Season. (And more here if you are really interested.)