Attending a Ball in Vienna
Every year, more than 300 grand balls are held. Ladies and gentlemen in gowns and black tie assemble to waltz, see, and be seen in some of Austria's finest venues, including the Imperial Palace. I had the pleasure of attending once such ball this year, The Coffeehouse Owners' Ball, held annually at said location with a guest list of over 5,000.
The Coffeehouse Owners' Ball, like most balls in Vienna, is open to the public. Just as every child in Vienna is taught social dance as a school requirement, every single person in Austria is eligible to attend most balls, simply by buying a ticket. Table seating and drinks come at an additional cost, as do carriage rides, fabulous dresses and other associated expenditures, but in Vienna, you'd be a fool not to attend at least one of these important societal gatherings each year -- and if you're a tourist, it's an experience you will never, never forget.
A typical ball evening begins with dinner, as one must prep for a late night of dancing. Then, most guests head to the ball venue around 7:30 PM to see the opening ceremony -- though I'm told "professional" ball goers, or people who've been attending several balls per week for years, tend to skip the ceremony and arrive at 11 or so when the real "party" starts. Depending on which ball it is, the ceremony may be less or more lavish. The Coffeehouse Owners' Ball included not only singing, dancing, and speeches by dignitaries and, of course, coffeehouse owners, but a presentation by Austria's most accomplished debutantes, who must apply and audition for a coveted debut slot at one of the larger balls.
Once the ceremonies are completed, the ball begins. At the Coffeehouse Owners' Ball, Professor Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, Austria's etiquette expert, announces "Alles walzer!" or "Everyone waltz!" -- and that they do.
After the announcement at the Coffeehouse Owners' Ball, the sprawling Imperial Palace was filled with dancers in the throes of every kind of dance from waltz to salsa and even the modern ... well, whatever it is we do now. Hors d'oeuvres, oysters and drinks were available everywhere. There wasn't a room in the palace where you couldn't hear music.
Viennese balls typically continue this way until the end of the evening, usually 4:00 AM or later. In the early wee hours, the doors are staffed with gift distributors, as it is customary for ladies to receive a gift as they exit the ball. After that, Viennese cafes are stuffed with ball attendees in full ball regalia eating goulash and drinking beer and enjoying the remains of the dark hours. Some ballgoers can be seen wandering the streets with half undone hair and gowns until about noon the next day. This is totally normal for Vienna.
If you are interested in attending a Viennese ball yourself, the first thing you need to do is brush up your dancing skills. Fortunately, Elmayer's studio and other studios in Vienna offer drop-in classes for tourists. Any hotel can provide you with information for a local waltzing class. I should add that: even if you think you can waltz, the Viennese Waltz is 60 beats per minute, which is very fast. A 58 euro class at Elmayer (or preferably two, over two days) is definitely advisable. Also, if you're in town with a stick-in-the-mud who doesn't want to dance, it's possible to hire a dance partner for the evening -- but you will be carefully vetted to make sure your intentions are squeaky clean. Another dance lesson option is Rueff; very easy for travelers as you need no reservation. Open classes at Rueff are from 4-5 PM Monday through Friday and cost 23 euros per person.
You can find a list of Vienna's most prominent public balls here (or search "balls" at vienna.info), I would encourage anyone to attend at least one in their lifetime, as the experience is truly unforgettable. See more pics of my night at The Coffeehouse Owners' Ball and after-hours at the Landtmann in the gallery below.
Gallery: The Coffeehouse Owners' Ball, 2010
My visit to Vienna was sponsored by the Vienna Tourist Board, but the opinions expressed in the article are 100% my own.