Hunters Go Dancing

Under the spell of history and grandeur, Trachten and Dirndls spin like pinwheels at the the Jägerball at Vienna’s Hofburg

Devouring a delicious crème brulée with former Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser only inches away would, in itself, be a sensation under other circumstances. However, not at the 88th Jägerball on Jan. 26, where such sightings are routine, as the glitterati of Austria’s high society turned around the floor in a more than passable Viennese Linkswalzer.

Said to be the only major ball in Austria that is always sold out, it counted more than 5,000 visitors this year, who all donned the obligatory Dirndl and Trachtenanzug, with many a felt hat with feather pulled down rakishly over one eye. According to the organizers, this year’s show had been sold out since Apr. 2008.

The Jägerball takes place in the gigantic Hofburg palace, which has been the seat of the government for various republics and empires since 1279, and is currently the residence of the Austrian president Heinz Fischer. Thus, this is an event under the spell of history and splendor. In the midst of ornamental fir trees and preserved animals, guests in the bodice dresses and boiled-wool jackets of the Austrian countryside chatted in the hallways or danced to the lilting folk Ländler, waltzes and social jazz, that was floating out from the orchestras and dance bands in the many ballrooms.

On the day of the ball, the center of Vienna seemed transformed, radiating a spirit of pride in tradition and Austrian consciousness. Walking towards the Hofburg from Schottentor with my escort, the Historicism buildings on either side, I caught a glimpse of Dirndls under the women’s capes, the knickers and knee socks under tailored overcoats.

We paused for a long moment to enjoy the scene, as people flocked to the hall in what seemed like a city-wide fairytale – where all the citizens of the kingdom gather at the royal palace as Cinderella sweeps past, while the world outside stands still.

In awe of the stories the city had to tell that evening, we entered the Hofburg. The foyer was crowded, and people were taking photographs on the red-carpeted staircase, as music from the opening dance teased the visitors’ ears. Trying to find the main ballroom to see our friends perform, we got hopelessly lost between some of the smaller ball rooms and the roof foyer, which was a sort of winter garden, and which later in the evening, would host a flamboyant party with music, lights, and delicacies such as mussels.

After wandering, half lost, through a labyrinth of hallways and smaller rooms, we finally made it to the main ballroom, just in time to hear Vienna’s Mayor Michael Häupl’s opening words. The opening program, consisting of Johann Strauß II’s Satanella Polka, a traditional opening waltz, and speeches by leading politicians was over. Guests rushed onto the dance floor to join in a waltz, while Austrian television interviewed former Miss Austria Christine Reiler, who was dressed in a red and black Dirndl, accompanied by her boyfriend Markus Rogan.

The ballrooms was a sea of Dirndls spinning like pinwheels as the dancers lost themselves in the graceful swan dance over the floor. Others treated themselves with exquisite food, such as a Mohr in Hemd, or oversized Krapfen, Schlumberger sparkling wine, or beer, and an entertaining evening ran its course.

Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators gathered out front placards held high in protest of the traditions of the chase. The organizers of the ball, Grünes Kreuz, were quick to say how unfair this was:

“Protection and preservation of nature and environment” is one of their goals, which any board member is quick to tell you. But it is also true that hunters in Austria have wiped out entire species, the NGO “Save” reminded demonstrators on their website weeks before the ball. These protests are nothing new, commented a cab driver that had chauffeured people home from the Jägerball for years.

But these issues were far from the minds of those in attendance.

“You don’t have to be familiar with hunting parlance to have fun at the ball,” said actress Nicole Beutler in an interview with The well-known Austrian actress, who has become famous for her leading role in the series Schlosshotel Orth and her appearances on the TV show Dancing Stars. As a trained ballet dancer, she had more to show than just her festive black, pink, and olive green Dirndl.

As alcohol started to show its effects, with Mayor Michael Häupl repeatedly spilling the sparkling wine on his suit (as several Austrian newspapers loved to report), the not-so-gifted dancers hit the dance floors. This added to the amusement and relaxed atmosphere. Long lost friends reunited, as the ball attracted people from all over Europe.

“I am only here for the weekend from Munich, (or London, or Paris…)” people excitedly told their vis-à-vis. And for the passionate ball-goers, the celebrations only ended in the morning after an after party at Stadtpark.

Otherwise they’d have to wait for a year for the next chance to dust off their Trachten, and head off into the wild.

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