All Vienna’s Having a Ball

For All the Formality, the Real Surprise Is How Much Fun It Is

Vienna State Opera Ball

Debutantes and their escorts performing the opening quadrille in splendor at the annual Vienna State Opera Ball | Photo: Samsung

U4 Karlsplatz, 7p.m. The train compartment is crowded, yet even more people manage to squeeze in; not just any people, but young people, teenage boys in tails, white collars and bow-ties, with smiling girls, hair done up, and flashes of color peeking out from underneath their coats.

Their hair and jewelry give it away: These people aren’t on their way to the pub. Three stations later, three middle aged couples enter, laughing and chatting, more suits and elegant dresses. Now it’s obvious: Ball season has begun.

One of Vienna’s oldest and most loved traditions, ball season is at the same time one of its most delightful paradoxes.

It’s all a little hard for strangers to understand sometimes.

But were they to attend any of the dozens of balls, at the Hofburg, the Musikverein or the Rathaus, where kings and queens once strolled arm in arm, the air of elegance and beauty can be overwhelming. However, it’s hard to imagine that the emperors and aristocrats of days gone by could possibly have had as much fun as the Viennese do today.

Crossing the threshold, our stranger would see an elegant, formal setting, people gloriously well-dressed, luscious black satin lapels, gowns perfect and hair meticulously coiffed – indicators of the occasion and etiquette to come.

However, expecting uneasiness or stiff-lipped formality, they would shake their heads in disbelief at the colorful potpourri of people, from teenagers to seniors, teasing and laughing, happily lost in loud conversation, wine, nibbles, champagne or cocktails, alcohol and more alcohol, promenading through the various halls where the sound of voices merges with the lyrical sway of a classical waltz, Caribbean grooves or spicy jives.

On any given night, at peak season, there are several balls taking place at once. And there are as many different types of balls as there are people brought together by the city itself: The Ball der Juristen (Lawyer’s Ball), the Ball der Wiener Wirtschaft (The Ball of Viennese Commerce), the Ball der Wiener Schulen (Vienna School Ball), the Ball der U-Bahn (Vienna Underground Ball), the Ball der Hausbesorger (Concierge’s Ball), the Ball der Gewichtheber (Weightlifter’s Ball!) – however our strangers saw themselves, they would find a ball of kindred spirits!

No matter which one you go to,  they all have one thing in common – hordes of young people, teenagers starting from 15 or 16, happily waltzing away among the older generations, who also feel thoroughly at home.

As the clock strikes 22:00, the disco – yes, the disco that is a must at balls nowadays –opens its dance floor.

However, whether you are letting your hair down in the disco or doing a Boogie by the bar, at five minutes to midnight, everybody hurries to the main ballroom. There, everybody crowds together waiting for the midnight quadrille – something everybody knows, but nobody remembers exactly how to do.

It is surprisingly simple to build long rows of hundreds of couples standing opposite each other. Anyone who is new to this shouldn’t worry at all, for even if our strangers joined the rows of chaotic dancers, nobody would find them clumsy.

Standing by the orchestra, one of the ball organizers will shout out instructions – then the music sets in, and endless rows of people begin to move in what should be a synchronized performance, but inevitably ends up in an exquisitely funny mess, with people bumping into each other, laughing, and tripping over their own and each other’s feet.

Our strangers would delight in the confusion, nobody caring about mistakes, judging each other or following some code or etiquette.

The strangers’ conclusion: The Viennese cherish their ball season, but what they cherish even more is having as much fun as possible until the early morning hours.

Around 5 a.m., our strangers would see the last remaining guests sitting on the stairs; men loosening their ties, exhausted women taking off their high heels – and often changing into a pair of sneakers.

The stroll to the next breakfast place is bound to be much more comfortable now that their pretty dancing shoes are off their feet—but only until the next ball!

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