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Shall We Dance?

The 200th anniversary of Vienna’s ball culture celebrates a storied tradition.

A couple revels in the opening dance of the Fête Impériale, held in the Spanish Riding School’s arena.

It is the second of October, 1814 — a Sunday evening in Vienna, Austria. In the expansive, gilded ballroom of the Hofburg Imperial Palace, some 8,000 candles burn brightly, along with countless crystal chandeliers. A profusion of flowers lines the central staircase, and swathes of gold and red velvet grace the galleries and balconies.

At the sounding of trumpets, some 10,000 masked guests gathered at the palace turn their attention to the royalty now entering the room: emperors and princes, tsars and kings, their partners dressed in elegant gowns of satin and lace. And so with their arrival does the Grand Ball of the Congress of Vienna begin.

Royal roots

As author and historian David King writes in Vienna, 1814, “Vienna was the heart of Europe” both geographically and culturally. And thus it was only fitting that this city would host the Congress of Vienna — a historic peace conference. And only fitting that such a gathering would be celebrated with a ball.

At the heart of Vienna itself, both then and now, is a love for the arts. Since the late 18th century — when classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven lived and worked in the city — Vienna has grown into a true capital of culture, giving rise to a vast array of art museums and opera houses,
symphony orchestras and ballet companies, as well as the triple-time dance known today as the Viennese Waltz.

But it is Vienna’s extravagant ball culture that could perhaps be considered the culmination of these various creative fields — a storied tradition that celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2014. 

The history of
Vienna’s balls extends into the present; Fête Impériale guests arrive to the Hofburg
Palace via horse-drawn carriage.

In fact, history reveals that the tradition’s roots dig even deeper than that lavish affair at the Hofburg Palace. Joseph II, who served as Holy Roman Emperor and head of the Hapsburg Empire in the late 1700s, held an uncommon respect for the common man. He advocated for a range of reforms such as elementary education and the freedom of serfs; and in 1773, he even opened the ballrooms of the Hofburg Palace to the public.

A popular peasant dance in that period, the waltz had previously not been accepted among higher society and was even prohibited in places, given that it required participants to dance in partners and with close body contact. So it was the commoners themselves who introduced the waltz to the aristocrats and more elite classes.

By the time Europe’s royalty, diplomats and an estimated 100,000 other visitors converged in Vienna for the 1814 peace conference, the waltz had risen to fashion and the ball culture was on its way to becoming a fixture of Austrian society — so much so that Emperor Francis I established a Festivals Committee to ensure proper entertainment for the Congress. 

Debutantes prepare to dance during the Spanish Riding School’s Fête Impériale — one of Vienna’s more than 450 annual galas.

The committee supplied a lively schedule of balls, banquets and masquerades, which no doubt slowed down the conference’s proceedings. (In fact, at one point that November, an Austrian diplomat named Prince de Linge remarked in a letter, “Le congrès danse, mais il ne marche pas,” meaning, “The Congress dances much, but it doesn’t progress.”)

From the mid-1800s onward, balls and the waltz were inextricably linked in Vienna. The Strauss family of composers rose to fame at this time with the now-iconic “By the Beautiful Blue Danube” as well as countless other waltzes, polkas and the like. And as Nicholas Parsons records in Vienna: A Cultural History, on any given night, “up to a quarter of [the city’s] three hundred thousand inhabitants might be found in establishments with music and dancing.”


Modern-day masquerades

A number of political conflicts disrupted life during the 19th and 20th centuries, putting a pause on cultural events such as balls. The revolutions against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1848 and both World Wars, in particular, devastated the city. And yet the majority of balls still held today were officially founded during the 1920s and ’30s.

Now more than 450 annual balls take place. Professional and trade groups organize a number of the events, giving their name to each — from the Pharmacist’s Ball and the Blumenball (Florist’s Ball) to the Ball of the Viennese Coffee House Owners. And with many guests often not arriving before midnight, these lavish affairs frequently last until dawn, when it’s customary to end the night with a bowl of spicy goulash soup at a nearby café. 

One of the oldest and most legendary events is the Vienna Opera Ball, held every February in the State Opera House. (A forerunner of the event occurred as early as 1877.) 

On that one evening, nearly 5,000 guests adhere to a strict formal dress code — floor-length evening gowns for women, black tuxedo and tails for men. Even the president of Austria himself attends, to open the festivities. 

The Hofburg Palace’s gilded ballroom inspires gala guests perhaps as much today as during its first ball 200 years ago.

“Balls belong to Vienna like the Fashion Week to New York or the Carnival to Rio de Janeiro. The Viennese love their balls,” says Eva Dintsis, secretary general of the Opera Ball.

Most of the other balls likewise occur in January and February during the Carnival season (known regionally as Fasching), but a few events also keep the city waltzing through the spring and summer.

The Fête Impériale (or the Summer Ball of the Spanish Riding School) takes place in June, with its 2,500 guests dancing in an open-aired courtyard of the Hofburg. The Life Ball, founded in 1993 and held every May, happens to be Europe’s biggest charity event for those with HIV and AIDS. Instead of ball gowns and black-tie dress, many of its 3,780 guests — including international celebrities — arrive in eclectic costumes relating to that year’s theme, ranging in the past from “Air” to “1,001 Arabian Nights” to “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

Altogether, from the classic to the contemporary, Vienna’s balls give the city the chance to dance for more than 2,000 hours each year. 

As the summer ball of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, the Fête Impériale supports the future of Lipizzaner horses, for which the school is known.

Come one, come all

While much has changed about Viennese ball culture since that inaugural Sunday evening in 1814, one essential element has stayed very much the same: the spirit of inclusivity with which Joseph II first opened the doors of the Hofburg Palace.

Anyone interested in purchasing a ticket may attend today’s extravaganzas, including foreign visitors. And taking part in the ball season remains an important tradition for Viennese locals. “It is a must for many young people here to go to as many balls as possible every season,” confirms Professor Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, third-generation director of Tanzschule Elmayer, the city’s most distinguished dancing school.

As the invitation to dance is officially announced during each opening ceremony —  “Alles Walzer,” or, “Everyone waltz!” — elegant young couples swirl across the ballroom floor and history comes to life again.

Two-hundred years and countless celebrations later, Vienna remains on its toes.