This event was always marked on our calendar as the thing we were not going to miss while in Europe and living so near Vienna. There are many balls in Vienna, mostly in January and February (ball season) - we selected the TU Ball (Vienna University of Technology – TU Wien), thinking there would be a good, young crowd, and we would feel comfortable surrounded by engineers. Most of the balls are open to the public, you can go to which ever one suits your fancy.
I fretted over my dress for some time. I read the dress code guidebook that is put out to help us hapless non-ball going people avoid making fools of ourselves. I knew I needed a floor-length dress, but aside from that I was free to pick what I liked. I stalked some dresses on ebay and won a raw silk dress from the UK for $60. It was pretty ugly but I thought I might be able to find a tailor who could transform it. I got really really lucky because very close to our apartment in Wroclaw is the studio of a young designer (Le Blakk) who was willing to take on the challenge of making my dress ball-worthy. For $130 she transformed it and fitted it for me. I ended up with a silk and lace, one of a kind, custom-fitted gown for less than $200 and it didn't involve child-labour in China! My only regret with the dress would be not having them hem it shorter to make dancing easier (lesson learned).
We must pause here for a before and after photo so you can admire the work Le Blakk did.
Peter bought his tux in Poland (buying being only slightly more expensive than renting for a week). We spent some of our time in Prague and Vienna shopping around for proper tie-it-yourself bow ties and elbow-length black gloves; both of these are surprisingly hard to find, but we succeeded and it gave us a good excuse to wander to strange areas of town.
The night of the ball we got ready and our hotel called us a cab. We weren't sure where, in the vast complex of palace buildings, one goes for the ball and were counting on the taxi driver knowing, which he did. We said "Hofburg Palace" and he just nodded. Because it's totally normal for people to request to go to the palace (it's essentially convention space, I guess). He dropped us off at the correct entrance where there was a buzz of activity as other formally-dressed people arrived. It was like what you imagine prom will be but what prom fails to be. (My prom was held in a school gym. This was better.)
We walked up to the table in the entrance to collect our tickets (no line), and went in! Note that there are long queues for the coat check. I used this time to change out of my boots (it's winter, remember) into my dance shoes. I noticed lots of other ladies doing this, which was a relief. Standing in line was a great chance to appreciate where we were and admire the tuxes and dresses of all the other people. Along with our coats we checked a bag that contained our change of shoes.
(I mention all these details because these were the things we wondered about that no one explained before hand. Perhaps this info will be useful to others going to their first ball in Vienna.)
The main ballroom was packed - the opening ceremony/show was starting just as we arrived (the debutantes were entering). It was hilariously impossible to see anything, so we went to get a drink and tour the rest of the rooms. It is possible to buy seats at tables in the main ballroom but they are very very pricey. We bought seats at a table that was just a room with tables, which turned out to be a nice way to get a break from the music and chaos of the dance floors. It is possible to order drinks and sausage at your table. Definitely get a table, otherwise you will not be able to sit down (unless you temporarily borrow someone else seat while they are dancing).
We did find a vantage point for the very end of the ceremony when they open the floor for dancing. I still don't know how anyone managed to do any part of a Viennese waltz on a dance floor that crowded!
After the main ballroom (Festival Hall, started in 1908, finished 1923), the most impressive one was the Ceremonial Hall built in 1803 with 26 chandeliers that once held 1300 candles; it's a beautiful, beautiful place to dance - exactly the kind of thing I've been dreaming of since we started ballroom lessons 5 years ago.
There was an orchestra in the main ballroom, a band in the Ceremonial Hall, and a band in another, small room with tables. Downstairs was another room with a band (salsa/latin, I think - we completely forgot to visit this room!). The music played was a mix - Viennese and slow waltzes, foxtrots, chacha, rumba, swing mostly (where we were). It was a mix of people who know how to dance really well, others who kind of know what's going on (like us), and people winging it. The dance floors were generally pretty crowded and there were collisions, unavoidably. Later in the evening it thinned out a bit. I suspect if we had stayed another hour it would have been even less crowded.
At some point in the evening, we sat at our table to rest and Peter ordered a sausage (the traditional Vienna ball food, I've read). It was simple and tasty and kept us going for a few more hours. Gotta be careful not to get mustard on anything. :)
At midnight they do the first Quadrille (set figure dances done in lines). We missed the midnight one but caught the 2:30am one (as spectators). I would love to know these figures and to dance them with others who know them, it looks like fun! I read advice before going that said to jump in and participate in the Quadrille even if you don't know it, but I disagree. Since you dance it with several people (the person across from you, the person diagonal to you, etc), if you don't know it, you'll kind of ruin it for them. They do call out the patterns (in German) and there are couples on stage doing it as a demo, but I say if you don't know it, just stand back and watch; it's very funny to watch. I posted a video of it here. And to contrast, here's what it looks like done by people who know it.
Here's a video I took of a Viennese Waltz. This is a very very crowded dance floor to try to do any waltz, much less a Viennese!! We tried a few times, but it was just too crowded! We need to practice a smaller, more compact version before the next ball.
We left the ball at 3:40am, though it continued on until the last waltz at 5am! There was a line of cabs waiting outside, we were whisked away immediately and were tucked in our hotel room in no time. We had a fabulous time, it's an incredible way to spend an evening. The only thing that would make it better would be having friends there - so next time we are determined to rope some people into going with us. How could they say no?
Vienna is a wonderful town - full of history and architecture and fabulous cafes - and in winter you can enjoy it all without mobs of tourists, plus, you can pop into a ball in the royal palace. I highly recommend it.
Even more photos here! More info on attending balls in Vienna is here and here.
Summary of tips for your Vienna ball:
- - make sure your dress is hemmed a bit short so you can dance easily
- - buy seats at a table somewhere; I would recommend the Ceremonial Hall so you can watch dancing while you relax.
- - it is not unusual for people to change into proper dance shoes upon arrival. Simply check your extra shoes with your coat.
- - unless you have seats in the main ballroom, you have to arrive very early to nab a spot to stand and watch the ceremony. It's probably a nice show, but not the end of the world if you miss it. The real fun is dancing yourself.
- - they won't bar you from entry if you don't meet the dress code, but try to. We saw men with non-black bow ties and a few ladies with mid-calf (rather than floor length) dresses, so you can do it and get in, but better to be respectful of the traditional dress code, I think.
- - be sure to pose for photos at some point with the official photographers
- - wear comfortable shoes you can dance in - this is not the night for new shoes or 4in heels, not if you mean to dance!