Everything in Vienna goes at half the pace of London. Except the waltzing. The English waltz, as it is known here, is half the speed of the Viennese version. “But the English version,” Professor Elmayer assures us, “has many steps. In the Viennese version there are just six. So it is easier.”
And the Prof should know a thing or two as it was his grandfather who started the school in 1919. Having been an officer in the imperial army, he was out of a job after the end of the First World War when not just the army but the empire disappeared overnight. So he decided to start a school for horses and etiquette (the last bit was for humans, presumably the horses already being impeccably polite). However, given the Spanish Riding School and its Lippizaner stallions were already going strong over the road and they could turn a mean pirouette, he dropped the horse side of the business and focused instead on human dancing.
So, here I was on the morning of the Coffee House Owners’ Ball, one of Vienna’s biggest and most prestigious, to get a steer (maybe literally) on the intricacies of the Viennese waltz from the principal of the Tanzschule Elmayer, a legendary institution in these parts. This is a place that opens its bookings in May for the courses to begin in September. The day the office opens at 3pm, the youth of Vienna starts queuing in the street at 9am to be sure to get a place. People make friends here – and often life partners – in a way that harks back a good 100 years. After all, as H. Elmayer points out, they are young and have plenty of candidates to choose from – there will inevitably be someone who fits the bill.
Earlier that morning, sitting at breakfast in my hotel, I talk to two German women who would also be going to the ball tonight. Yes, they took lessons at home because the Weiner waltz is the traditional dance for weddings in Germany (“and we wanted to do a good job” – don’t you love the Germans?). And, yes, they assured me it was the hardest of all dances to learn. And, even more serious, the Viennese danced in the opposite direction to everyone else (to the left) and swapped between the two directions, just to make it that bit harder. So, we have the hardest dance in the world, danced in the hardest way possible to learn in just one hour. Hmmm.
Professor Elmayer, a greying, elegant man in an immaculate suit, is of a more optimistic frame of mind, assuring his class that we have only those six steps to remember. Even so, by the end of the lesson, I was not entirely convinced. For one thing you get very dizzy, turning and turning in the same direction. There is an antidote for this, of course, which is to turn the other way. Unfortunately, to be able to do this you have to be far beyond beginner level.
As it turns out, we don’t even have a full hour on the waltz as we also have to learn the quadrille. The quadrille is the second most important dance of the evening and for the last 20 minutes of the lesson we learned (maybe that’s not quite the word) the basics. It’s based on an 18th century social dance for a large group but is “crashed” by people galloping (back to those horses) through the rows of dancers madly intent on destruction, whooping until they skid to a halt and find their places again for the next round. And the instructions (think of a caller for a Scottish ceilidh) are given in old-fashioned French which neither we nor the Viennese understand. Should be a good night then.
I’d arrived the day before to hire my gown (not dress, please note). Now if all this sounds a bit girly, you’d be right. Whether your taste is for historical novels or Disney films, when the heroine gets to go to the ball, that’s the real climax of the film (forget all that princely romantic interest). And if you want the full court grandeur, the Coffee House Owners’ Ball is one of the best. The setting is the imperial palace, the Hofburg, just about as grand as it gets and there is a strict dress code – white tie and tails for the men (dinner jackets if you absolutely must and gala uniform if you’ve got the nerve) and floor length gowns for the women. Otherwise, however much you’ve paid for your ticket, you don’t get through the door.
So it was off to Flossmann, suppliers of evening apparel to the aristocracy, for a fitting. Getting the dress is stressful, so much so that they ply you with pink prosecco to help you choose. It’s no good looking at the sizes because they’ve been altered to fit many before you, so you have to try on those you judge by eye might work. Not as easy as you might think. My first choice looked OK and fitted on the hips but then got too small on the way up. The second one said it was the right size but was four sizes too big. Then there was a red one that was almost all right but I plumped for a pale greenish-yellow, sounds odd but fitted perfectly and I decided it would look good at night.
But if you think it’s just a girly dream of going to the ball, you’d be wrong. The boys in the party had just as much fun. Wearing tails is a bit of a moment and they decided to try on lots of different styles (there are shirts and waistcoats to think about too) and had various James Bond moments (OK I know he was mostly in a dinner jacket) and sent selfies to their friends pretending they were getting married. And Prof Elmayer had also given them some tuition in how to ask a lady to dance and, of course, hand kissing just to round off the lesson (you bow over the hand and preferably don’t touch it but if you must, please no slobber).
They did miss out on the styling, though. If you’re going to look the part you need professional make-up and plenty of it, as well as your hair styled – and I use the word advisedly. The up-do rules at the ball.
So with all of us looking just about as glamorous as we were ever going to get, we set off to our pre-ball dinner – by tram. That was our last moment as plebs and, strangely, in Vienna people on the tram in full fig don’t raise the locals’ eyebrows, though we did get snapped by a Japanese tourist. After that, it’s all about living the fairy tale.
So, to dinner in the marble hall of the grand Restaurant Vestibul in the Burgtheater (known to the Viennese as the “Burg”), where every diner was dressed ready for the ball. Champagne was served, then a typical Austrian meal with Viennese wines – and the Viennese do have some excellent red wines as well as the white everyone knows about. In fact, Vienna is the only European city with its own vineyards – Wein/wine, geddit? For instance, there’s Weingut Christ Mephisto (I’m not making this up, honest). However, there is no question that the drink of the night is Champagne or the Austrian version of it, Sekt. The sound of popping corks will continue to fill the air almost as much as Strauss for the next ten hours.
So, after a splendid dinner, it was time to go to the ball. We could have walked (would take about a minute) but went the whole hog and took one of the horse-drawn carriages that have been in business here since the 17th century. I mean, is there any other way to arrive at an imperial palace?
Inside, it was absolutely heaving. Around 5000 people go to this ball and it takes over the palace with around 18 different rooms, all devoted to different styles of music – everything from opera to jazz to disco. The place is so vast and the layout so complicated, they actually issue you with a map. But, at least to start with, we were doing the thing properly and went to the main room for the opening ceremony.
Balls used to be by imperial invitation only, then the aristos ran theirs, then it began to open to the top end of trade (good heavens!) and now while the main season is January and February they go on all year around – about 450 of them at the last count. This is one of the most traditional and the opening ceremony (it lasts for about an hour) begins with the trouping in of the VIPs and they include, appropriately enough, a couple of Habsburgs whose imperial ancestors would have viewed the hundreds of debutantes being presented for the first time to Society. They’re still here, still in their hundreds, each with a debs’ delight and a posy, dressed in white and looking like a bride.
All the while the champagne flows at your table and a ballet company performs the ballet version of the waltz then an opera singer travels round the dance floor, singing from a sleigh drawn by a trio of male dancers. Then the debs and their beaus who have been lining the dance floor throughout this (two have fainted and had to be revived with water and squares of chocolate) take up their positions for the Viennese waltz and very beautiful it is, too. Then Professor Elmayer (yes, he’s in charge) declares the ball open and the rest of us can flock to the floor.
It starts, naturally, with a lot of Viennese waltzing – easier than I’d thought as the floor is so packed you don’t have room to get dizzy. Then more dances are introduced – paso doble anyone? Then it gets positively contemporary as the jive sneaks in. This leads up to a real pop icon (Italian, I’d never heard of him) who makes some people give up on the couple dancing and just do the normal shuffling from foot to foot while some people determinedly spin round them as the waltz goes on and on.
In the early hours, “breakfast” (sausages and mustard) is served and still the dancing goes on. Holding firmly on to our maps, a couple of us explore the bars and restaurants, the rooms that have opera on offer or a covered garden room that’s more like a night club. At 3am, we’re told about the 70s band on the roof and make our way through the marble corridors and grand stairways to find a bunch in wild afro wigs and yellow flares. We leave around 4am (don’t forget your party bag with its little prezzies), though it doesn’t officially end till 6am. My feet have given up, finally pinched by my dancing shoes. And they weren’t even made of glass.
For more information about the Vienna Coffee House Owners Ball visit www.kaffeesiederball.at. British Airways (www.ba.com) offers return flights from London to Vienna from £135 per person. Bedrooms at the Ring Hotel start from €219 (approx. £162) excluding breakfast. For more information or to book visit www.theringhotel.com. Finally, to complete the trip, for dress rental visit Flossmann, www.flossmann.at and for hair styling and make up visit Hairdesign Petritsch www.hairdesign-petritsch.com +43 (0)1 332 11 00.
For more information about Vienna visit www.vienna.info.