Scarlett’s Guide to the Vienna Ball Season
The wonderful tradition of Viennese balls continues to thrive in Austria’s capital with more than 450 annual balls taking place in Vienna between the months of December to February. Offering an impressive 2000 hours worth of dancing, this carnival season invites everyone to Waltz, Cha Cha and jive their way through the night. However, with so many customs, traditions and balls to choose from it’s difficult to know where to start. From the "Damenspenden" to the requisite gown, Austrian culture runs through every aspect of the Viennese Ball and guests need to be well prepared, knowing everything from the correct dance moves to proper etiquette. So, we thought it would be helpful to compile a list of “do’s and don’ts” to help you avoid making any embarrassing faux pas on the big night.
A little introduction…
Dating back to 18th-century aristocratic times, the Ball season in Vienna has become a very popular carnival-like attraction, frequented by over 300,000 dance-loving visitors from all around the world. Traditionally the balls were held as an opportunity for nobility to wear masks and costumes in private, however today it is a chance for the Viennese to copy courtly customs of these fabulous celebrations, whilst retaining the strict dress code, traditions and culture of bygone days. This ever-popular tradition has spread around the world and has become synonymous with international glamour, romantic elegance and prestige.
A Viennese Ball can be held for many reasons, and it is therefore important to know a little bit about the function you are attending. From the elaborate traditional, “top of the line” balls, through to charity fundraisers and modern balls that are held just for fun, you need to be prepared with the correct dress code or you may not be allowed in. In the majority of cases, formal eveningwear is expected. For ladies, this usually means a full-length ball gown; the colour is up to you and if opting for gloves, (these are not mandatory) they should preferably match the colour of your dress. The length of the glove should be coordinated with the drop of the sleeve of your dress and as a general rule of thumb: the longer the sleeve the shorter the glove! Another tip: stay away from white dresses unless you are debutantes of the opening committee (this is explained in more detail later on).
For the gentlemen: customary tuxedos or gala uniforms should be worn at “Black tie” events, or tailcoats at “white tie” events. Your suit should be completed with a white bow tie and patent shoes, or alternatively, most balls will accept military uniforms.
Modern balls, such as the “Life Ball”, allow the dress code to be themed and quite extravagant and for the few exceptions, elegant Austrian folkwear can also be worn; these include traditional Dirndl dresses and Steirer suits. But this must always be checked prior to entering.
There are many shops in Vienna offering fancy ball dresses available to hire and this is definitely more economical for the novice dancer. However, always check the dress code before planning your outfit and plan in advance! You don’t want the shops to have sold out if you’re planning on leaving it until the last minute.
From New York to Moscow, Viennese Balls are a unique experience wherever they may be held. Having earned the accolade of being a social landmark, the Austrian traditions still run through the Viennese Ball culture and can make the difference between just a "Dance" and a real Viennese Ball.
Most Viennese balls start at 9pm, and although there is usually a hot or cold buffet later on in the evening, it’s a good idea to eat something before you go. Every opening ceremony is performed by the “debutantes” who are the young, first-time ball attendees. The debutantes usually wear white ball gowns and perform the classic Viennese Waltz, and are the only ones that should do this. The Master of Ceremonies will then usually officially open the ball with an announcement.
The “Damenspenden”, as mentioned in the introduction, is a gift given to the ladies when they either enter or leave the ball. Once upon a time, these were in the form of beautifully decorated cards with promised dances from admirers, but today they can be in various forms, including silver spoons, jewellery and sweets.
The Midnight Quadrille is an old French dance, which is performed at midnight together by hundreds of dancers and accompanied by the orchestra. Allowing all guests to mingle with the crowd, the steps of the midnight quadrille are announced by the Master of Ceremonies, usually in German, so if you don’t speak German…you may need to copy a neighbour!
If you are lucky enough to get a table - and remember that these do not come with a standard ticket - the lady is always seated to the right of the gentleman. If a lady stands, the man to her left must either get to his feet or make a gesture to this effect. An old school cavalier will extend his greeting to the ladies with a kiss to the hand, but he must take great care to get it right: making sure his lips do not touch her skin.
Dance Floor Rules…
You really don’t need to be a brilliant dancer to attend a Viennese ball, as basic dancing skills will be absolutely fine, however, it is important to learn the basics of a Waltz. You could brush up on your moves prior to the ball to avoid making any embarrassing faux pas or look into getting a dance lesson or two at the Elmayer school where you can learn the waltz, the Quadrille and more. The Elmayer School can provide group lessons the afternoon of the ball so there’s no fear of forgetting the moves on the big night. Now you're ready to dance, or as they say in Vienna “alles waltzen”, so you will need a dance partner. You may have a partner lined up but it is standard ballroom etiquette that if another man asks a lady to dance, she should really accept his request. Don’t fear, this isn’t like a school disco where accepting a dance means that you have social commitments, it’s simply good manners. However, gents, if you are aware that the lady has arrived with a partner, you should ask him for permission first. And ladies, whilst declining an invitation is perfectly acceptable, it must be done in a charming and endearing manner. Once you’ve made it onto the dance floor, it is the man’s responsibility to lead and he is also expected to demonstrate his mastery of the situation. At the very beginning and end of the dance, you and your partner may bow and curtsey to each other. Unless you decide to continue for the next dance, the gentlemen will offer his right arm and escort his partner off of the dance floor. Don’t worry ladies a man will never abandon you mid-dance (unless you stand on his toe!!).
When the dance is over, the man should always accompany his partner back to the table, where it is good manners to ask other ladies present at the table if they would like to join him in a dance.
Finally, most Viennese balls finish at 5am and if you want to put into practice your Waltz moves you should really stay until the very end. For entertainment inspiration for your own Vienna ball contact one of our expert entertainment co-ordinators at email@example.com.