Waltz This Way

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2004

I didn't fully appreciate the joy of the waltz until I noticed my partner's expression. It was beatific.

Bernadette Millet, a demure young Austrian, gazed up with the blissful smile of a woman who knew how to find heaven in a dancer's strong arms. She allowed herself to be whirled across the parquet floor wearing a look very close to ecstasy. At that moment, during just my third lesson, I understood the rapture that can pass between a woman and a man waltzing beautifully together.

Unfortunately, she wasn't waltzing with me.

The arms in which she was melting belonged instead to my instructor, Suabek Roman, a dashing 27-year-old with the posture of a prince and the smile of a matinee idol. With trouser cuffs breaking just so over his flashing black shoes and a perfect half-inch of white cuff showing at his wrist, he led Millet around the floor like a summer breeze wafting a rose petal across the palace garden.

I, meanwhile, stood at the edge of the dance school floor, panting and dizzy from my own attempts to master the six "simple" steps of the Viennese waltz. Millet's smile, so full of gladness whenever Roman whisked her off on a few demonstration turns, became a little more fixed when she danced with me. And it dissolved into a polite grimace whenever I kicked her ankle: OUCH, two, three. WHACK, two, three. OOF, two, three.

Millet, an 18-year-old dance student, hadn't thought to wear shin guards when she was assigned to partner with an American beginner possessing all the physical grace of a broken umbrella. At the height of Vienna's winter ball season, I had come to the Austrian capital to learn to waltz -- and somebody was gonna get hurt.

The three of us were alone in the main studio of the Elmayer Dance School, a warren of mirrors and wooden floors that has been the epicenter of Vienna's waltz scene almost since Emperor Franz Josef I lived across the street in the Imperial Palace. (He died three years before the school was founded by an Imperial Army officer in 1919.) And so, where thousands had boxed-stepped before me, I lurched through the relentless three-count of Johann Strauss.

A Season of Balls

"Smaller steps. Smaller steps," said Roman, as I punted Millet around the room like a rag doll. After her time with Herr Handsome, dancing with me must have been like hugging a ceiling fan. "It's turning, turning, turning, always turning. At the ball, it will be much quicker even. This is no English waltz. The Viennese waltz is twice as fast."

There's a slower waltz?!

Great. I had to go and choose Vienna for my introduction to formal dancing, not realizing the Viennese are the snowboarders of the ballroom. Waltzing here is not just a national passion, it's an Xtreme sport. A proper Vienna waltz -- Strauss's "Blue Danube," for example -- is basically 13 minutes of nonstop stylized spinning. Experienced dancers can do it without even holding on to each other, two bodies perfectly synchronized at 30 rpm, chatting pleasantly as they whirl like dervishes in evening wear. For hacks like me, it's more like being trapped on the teacup ride at Disneyland, trying to remain polite to your partner by not vomiting in her cleavage.

Even so, Vienna is the right place to come if you want to immerse yourself in waltz culture: classical music is everywhere, the Strausses are celebrated like pop stars and Viennese teens take waltz lessons the way Bethesda kids sign up for soccer.

And it's during winter that waltz society reaches its yearly crescendo. Although balls are now held through the spring and summer, from January to March the Viennese fully indulge their zeal for fancy dress and fine champagne. Almost every weekend a ball is held, dozens of them, mostly open to the public. Each one is sponsored by and celebrates some guild of Viennese life, from the florists' Blumenball and the confectioners' Zuckerbäckerball to the Vienna Philharmonic Ball in its glorious concert hall, the stately old-guard Imperial Ball and, the season's grand finale, the glamorous Opernball, which has been held in the State Opera House since 1877.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company