Gowns, Wurst and Protesters: It’s Ball Season in Vienna
Posted February 4, 2018 4:51 p.m. EST
VIENNA — Black tie and satin gowns. Horse-drawn carriages. Waltzes, cha-chas and tangos until the wee hours. High-society revelers scarfing down Wiener wurst with their fingers.
And now, police blockades and marching protesters.
This is peak ball season in Vienna, 2018.
A tradition deeply embedded in the Viennese soul, the formal dance events of the ball season are held by the city’s professional guilds, political parties and universities from November until Lent, with the highest concentration of parties from early January until the end of February.
Many are stiff high-society affairs, like the New Year’s Ball and the Opera Ball — the “official ball of the Federal Republic of Austria,” which dates in its various forms to the 1800s, and this year takes place Thursday.
Others, like the Confectioners’ Ball, Coffee Brewers’ Ball and Flower Ball, all held last month, are just as formal but attended by a wider audience.
A political subtext often lurks behind the dazzling scenes, but this year’s season has proved especially fraught. On Jan. 26, around 3,000 police officers blocked off a broad section of the city center to prevent protesters from clashing with members of the right-wing Freedom Party, who were attending the Academics’ Ball in the former imperial palace.
The Vienna faction of the party, which returned to government last year, has sponsored the Academics’ Ball since 2013. Attendees include members of Austrian right-wing fraternal societies, who wear pillbox hats to show their affiliation. Outside the venue, 8,000 to 10,000 protesters marched through the streets, carrying banners and signs saying “Resistance” and “Don’t Allow Nazis to Govern.”
The night after the Academics’ Ball, more than 3,000 guests attended the Vienna Ball of Sciences, which was founded in 2015 in part as a “counterball” to the Academics’ Ball, in a subtle protest by university rectors and scientists. The guests filled the spired City Hall’s vaulted, chandeliered ballroom, colonnaded hallways and red-carpeted staircases.
The original idea for the ball came from scientists’ irritation at the right wing’s use of the word academic, therefore “hijacking” the reputation of education and research, said Oliver Lehmann, a co-chairman of the Ball of Sciences’ organizing committee. He added, “We’re about diversity, openness and excellence.”
Case in point: Some of the women in attendance glided over the dance floors in floor-length saris or accessorized their gowns with matching hijabs.
Politics aside, the balls transform this city.
At this time of year, women emerge from the city’s salons with elaborate coifs. Crash courses in ballroom dancing are booked to capacity. Tux rentals become scarce though most locals own their own formal wear.
“I own 4 1/2 ballgown,” joked Monika Kanokova, a communications consultant who attended her first event, the Flower Ball, at 18.
Each ball requires a certain look.
“The Opera Ball is very traditional, with classic, tight hairstyles” said Danijel Vladimir, proprietor of All About Hair, an intimate salon in Vienna’s tony 1st District. “The others are more casual and modern — blowouts or loose up-dos. The Hunters’ Ball is braids, braids, braids.”
Debutantes bring their required tiaras to their styling appointments, where they’re affixed with copious hair teasing, hair spray and many, many bobby pins.
Most balls feature food stands in addition to booked table service, making gown-clad guests dipping pairs of long sausages into mustard and horseradish a common sight — especially after the midnight quadrille, a coordinated dance that fills the ballroom.
As much as Viennese balls mirror their city’s complex history, intricate social hierarchies and political affiliations, they are also big business. A recent study published by Vienna’s Chamber of Commerce predicted that a record 505,000 people would attend balls this season, spending an estimated 139 million euros (about $173 million) at the balls alone. Many Austrian businesspeople invite international colleagues during ball season to impress them and ultimately seal deals, Kanokova said. “If you need someone to fly across the globe, you take them to a Vienna ball,” she said. “It’s so out of this world, but it’s also such a well-preserved piece of the city’s history.”
At the Ball of Sciences, as at other balls, guests floated from room to room, which the Viennese call “flanieren.” An orchestra played waltzes in the cathedrallike grand ballroom of City Hall while a jazz ensemble entertained in a smaller hall. Yet another space featured DJ’d disco tracks and walls festooned with neon-painted artwork by students from the city’s University of Applied Arts.
Vienna’s new mayor-elect, Michael Ludwig, dropped by, as did Michael Häupl, who is retiring as mayor after nearly 24 years and is a biologist.
The pinnacle of peak season is the Opera Ball, which always takes place on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.
The sole ball held in Vienna’s opera house, it attracts 5,000 guests who witness around 150 debutantes in snow-white gowns waltz with their partners, a rehearsed and tightly choreographed extravaganza televised by Austria’s national broadcaster, ORF.
The event also attracts dignitaries and celebrities. President Alexander van der Bellen will attend this year, as will Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Actress Melanie Griffith is also due to attend.
At the Ball of Sciences, Caroline Weinberg, a national co-chairwoman of the March for Science in Washington, was attending at the invitation of Lehmann, of the organizing committee. In the VIP area, she met Austrian scientists and politicians, and “talked politics in formal wear.”
Could she waltz? Not as well as the locals.
Yet the experience was remarkable nonetheless.
“It was like walking into a time machine,” she marveled. “I had this image in my head of what a Viennese waltz looks like, because I watched old movies.”
“I didn’t expect it to be like that,” she said. “But it was.”