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Folklore traditions of the winter months in Austria

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Vienna's Glorious Ball Season

Throughout the night, one is surrounded by beauty: Vienna’s balls usually take place either in lovely mansions, once owned by a member of the aristocracy; or in a prince’s former town palace; or, at the most desirable location in all of Vienna, the great hall of the Imperial Palace (Hofburg). And Vienna’s ballrooms are, as it were, dressed to the hilt, – quite suitable for the occasion: decked out in thousands of flowers, the walls adorned with magnificent decorations and ablaze with glittering lights, they evoke an atmosphere of elegance and tradition.

Ballgoers arrive, the ladies, bejeweled and dressed in gowns that will be discussed in next morning’s paper, the gentlemen in black or white tie, complete with ribbons. To the tune of a formal polonaise, the debutantes of the season and their escorts – young girls almost always dressed all in white, young men in white tie and tails – open the ball; the first dance is invariably a waltz, danced to perfection by these young scions of society. After it is completed, the dance master calls out the words which everyone has been awaiting: Alles Walzer! - Everybody Waltz!. It is then that the dance floor is turned over to the rest of the guests and becomes the arena of all ballgoers. And, indeed, everybody does dance – all through the night!

Champagne is the drink of the night. And at some balls, being seen by or with the right people counts as much as the good time one is having. Most balls last until the wee hours of the morning and, in addition to the waltz, one finds couples dancing the jitterbug or the tango, and to disco tunes or the Macarena. Usually, it is the "kids" that remain until it is nearly dawn – their energy seems to be boundless. Going home after a ball? No way! There’s still time for a Katerfrühstück, a "hangover breakfast." And if coffeehouses are not yet open, there’s always a hot dog stand nearby. It is not unusual, during Vienna’s ball season, for early risers on their way to work to encounter a group of lively youngsters in splendid gowns and formal suits, in elegant coats with silk shawls draped over their shoulders, devouring a hot dog at an all-night Würstelstand.

Vienna’s ball tradition also demands a Damenspende, a present for the ladies to take home. Originally, this present was designed to hold the dance card, on which all the dances of the night were listed and young men reserved their dance by writing their names next to the chosen dance or dances. Around the turn of the last century, some of these Damenspenden were unusually inventive – some, signifying the advent of the modern age, consisted of miniature steam locomotives or tiny sewing machines. Today, Damenspenden may be somewhat more prosaic – an exquisite perfume, a waltz CD or a lovely piece of custom jewelry are always welcome.

debutante.gif (10133 bytes)In preparation for their grand entrance, Vienna’s debutantes will have prepared for many months by attending one of Vienna’s elegant dance schools and, later, rehearsing the opening ceremony and waltz in the ballroom itself. Incidentally, dance schools, such as the famous Elmayer’s, offer "crash courses" at reasonable prices for ballgoers visiting from outside Vienna without much time at their disposal. Courses are offered at Elmayer Dance School, Bräunerstrasse 13, A-1010 Vienna, Tel. 011-43-1-512 7197, Fax: 011-43-1-798-6880 or at Dorner Dance School, Gusshausstrasse 15, A-1040 Vienna, Tel. 011-43-1-505-0612,
Fax: 011-43-1-505-31086.

And, of course, visitors to the city don’t always travel with a ball gown or tuxedo in their luggage – here, too, numerous rental services specializing in ball gowns and formal wear come to the rescue. The Viennese themselves also often make use of them – an inventive way of being clad in this year’s fashion without having to pay the full price. The place to go to in Vienna is: Lambert Hofer, Bartensteingasse 3, A-1010 Vienna, Tel. 011-43-1-408 16 66 0.

"I would never marry a woman who dances the waltz!"

The Viennese love celebrating Carnival, the days preceding Lent, called Fasching in Vienna, which usually lasts from the beginning of the New Year until Ash Wednesday. Considering the love of the Viennese for festive occasions, it is all the more surprising that Vienna, unlike Venice, Rio de Janeiro or Cologne, does not have an extended period of cavorting in the streets and no parades of masked revelers.

This tradition, or lack thereof, goes back to one of Austria’s most beloved rulers, Empress Maria Theresia (1717 – 1780). Despite being much admired by her people, she often played the role of a stern mother figure: she did not approve of the Viennese Fasching of her day, which at that time still included wearing masks in the streets – because brawls and tumult sometimes erupted under cover of anonymity. She therefore banned the wearing of masks in the streets of Vienna. But she permitted the aristocrats at her imperial court to celebrate with masks inside their own "homes" (which were, in fact, palaces or elegant mansions). After her death, her son Josef II, a "People’s Emperor," who was even closer to the Austrian people than his mother, relaxed her rule and allowed all Viennese to celebrate Fasching indoors, with or without masks.

At that time, balls were rather sedate affairs, with stylized minuets, gavottes, polonaises and other figure dances involving very little body contact. What no-one could foresee was the infusion of a new musical energy that the advent of the waltz would bring to Vienna and, thence, to the rest of the world. At first, the waltz was considered exceedingly immoral: the constant invitation of today’s dance masters, much to the chagrin of timid young girls and boys, namely Tuchfühlung ("Get closer!") was precisely what outraged the old guard at that time. In 1787, Johann Count Fekete described a ball which included waltzing: "It was wild and immoral. The women behaved in a Bacchanalian manner, all innocence fled from the place." And the Duke of Devonshire declared unequivocally: "I would never marry a woman who dances the waltz!"

Their protests were futile – the waltz was destined to take over the world. And balls, in Vienna, are forever linked with lilting melodies in three-quarter time.

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Have a Ball!

There are balls for every taste and every pocket-book in Vienna. On New Year’s Eve, the elegant Kaiserball (Imperial Ball) at the Hofburg (Imperial Palace), a relatively recent ball, has attracted tourists and Viennese alike .
Of course, the crowning glory of Vienna’s or, for that matter, the European ball season, has traditionally been the Opernball , held at Vienna’s venerable State Opera, whose stage and auditorium are transformed into a giant dance floor. This is an event of such magnitude in Austria that it is broadcast live on television – so that everybody participates. The Jägerball (Hunters’ Ball) is a special event, where almost everybody is turned out in elegant variations of Austria’s native dress. The floor-length dirndls of the ladies are made of velvet and silk and the Alpine jackets of the men are of the finest materials. One of the highlights in this city where music reigns supreme is, of course, the ball put on by the Wiener Philharmoniker at their "home," the Musikverein concert hall: the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra put aside their instruments for the Philharmonikerball and let another orchestra play for them – but they do dance! The Rudolfina Redoute is the only significant masked ball in Vienna – and until midnight, the floor belongs to masked ladies: it’s ladies choice until then. If one’s heart is set on wearing a mask, however, one may participate in one of the numerous G’schnasfeste where the motto is: Anything goes!

Of course, there are numerous other balls of differing degrees of elegance. They all have some things in common: they are festive, they are fun – and they offer an occasion to dance the night away in three-quarter time.

For more detailed information on Vienna and its balls, please contact the Vienna Tourist Board, Obere Augartenstrasse 40, A-1025 Vienna, Tel. 011-43-1-211 14-0, Fax: 011-43-1-216 84 92,
E-Mail: inquiries [@] Website:

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