Dancing With the Chimney Sweeps

An expat Brit gets a taste for the frivolity and nocturnal madness that is ball season in Vienna

The Rauchfangkehrer

The Rauchfangkehrer greeted our chimney outsider with warmth and charm | Photo: R. Zennaro

As the day of the Ball der Wiener Rauchfangkehrer approached, I wasn’t all that up for it. Vienna is the City of Balls and, of the 150 soirées to choose from, a reception for the Association of Chimney Sweeps at the Austria Trend Park Hotel Schönbrunn didn’t quite seem the apotheosis.

I wanted to feast on veal and beef filet crépinette with truffle potato gratin dauphinoise at the Hofburg, while the flowing skirts of waltzing débutantes gently fanned me by. I wanted to glut myself on the crimsons and golds of the Opera House under the self-satisfied gaze of Viennese high society. I couldn’t help but feel that this ball was going to be more of a corporate conference closing party than a winter wonderland.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was it nothing like what I had imagined, but I would vow that, come hell or high water, I would be back next year.

One of the best things about going to a ball is getting to wear a fancy dress. Carlotta Bach of Vintage in Vienna kindly agreed to lend me an outfit for the evening and I spent several hours in her shop that afternoon picking one out. I went for a 1970s Guy Laroche tiered dress in black crêpe de chine, accessorised with a cream and gold woven evening bag, pearl enamel earrings and vintage Ferragamo pumps. Before leaving, I placed a strategic Skype call to my mum, hoping she might admire the outfit and secretly buy it for me for Christmas. (I’ll keep you posted!)

Having had my locks teased and blow-dried into something sufficiently salonfähig, I decided to order a cab and arrive in style. Pulling up, I could see the chimney sweep apprentices in brass-buttoned jackets and white stocking caps lining the steps leading up to the entrance. A pillared hall led to a ballroom asparkle in gold leaf, gilt and crystal chandeliers with cherubs gambolling on the frescoed ceiling.

I fell into conversation with one Johann Sorian from Styria, a Rauchfangkehrer who was resplendent in a top hat and tails with white lace froths from his cuffs and the neck of his velvet waistcoat. Was this outfit related to some Rauchfangkehrer tradition? Grinning, he shook his head. “It’s just my style,” he said, with a mock bow.

Viennese ball tradition dates back to the 18th century, when Emperor Joseph II hosted dances in the Redoutensäle of the Hofburg Palace – previously reserved for nobility. Courtly customs have endured, and as white-gowned débutantes floated down the circular stairs with their escorts, it was evident that the formal opening ceremony was about to begin.

Instead of the usual polonaise, waltz or Fledermaus Quadrille, the young Rauchfangkehrer performed an original choreographed dance to a modern ballade that culminated in a young lady being held shakily aloft like a quivering water lily.

It was at this point that I noticed something or, more appositely, the absence of something. The work-related parties that I’ve had the misfortune to attend in the past have generally been tinged with ever-so-slight cynicism: An air of “I’m-here-but-only-under-duress-as-I’ve-got-better-things-to-do.”

It may be pure presumption, but there was something very nice sloshing about this room, and I couldn’t help but feel it was pride. No wonder: Vienna is regularly voted one of the best-run cities in the world and these Rauchfangkehrer surely make a vital contribution to the safety of the civic infrastructure.

But, good as this was, it was just the beginning: I had yet to hit the Bijou Lounge, a room just off the main ballroom where a Rauchfangkehrer-capped DJ “L. Rock” was presiding. The room was a seething mass of cigarette smoke, chimney sweeps, and off-the-scale happiness. Suddenly, L. Rock’s spinning of “Let’s Twist Again” sent an older couple out on to the floor. She was in floor-length purple satin and he in a dinner jacket, which he flung to the floor. The crowd went wild. Then a buxom lady joined, flamenco-ing to “Volaré” by The Gipsy Kings, lifting her skirt to flash the ruffles of her creamy petticoat. The old man picked up his jacket and began whirling it above his head in exuberant appreciation. My companion had been to quite a few balls in some of the most illustrious venues. None, she assured me, were as much fun as this.

It was now the early hours of the morning, when I laid eyes on one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. In her late 70s, she was dressed entirely in black lace with a black velvet band holding her snowy white hair in place. This was Monika Rejmar, whose ancestor, Josef Rejmar, was the first-ever chimney sweep in Austria, bringing the tradition with him from the Italian city of Spazza. The family had helped inaugurate the ball 22 years ago, and had attended every year since. What made Josef Rejmar leave Italy, I wondered?

“He fell in love with an Austrian girl,” she smiled. If that Austrian Mädel had looked even remotely like the glorious creature standing before me, it would have been an easy choice.

The ball was coming to an end and, like Cinderella, I had to say goodbye to my gown. I was going to London first thing the next day and my friend had offered to return it to Carlotta. As I exited the hotel, I saw DJ L.Rock taking five before his final set.

“See you next year,” I said, smiling. With a crisp salute to his trusty white cap, he tipped his head and went back inside.

For more see previous coverage of Vienna Balls.


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