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.
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.
There are alternative balls -- the popular Life Ball each spring has a Mardi Gras air and benefits AIDS patients -- but most are strictly traditional. Many are opened by a debutante dance, old-fashioned quadrilles are called and antique manners observed. With begowned and betuxed crowds whirling beneath frescoed ceilings and glittering chandeliers, the balls are Vienna's annual way of reclaiming the prettiest traditions of a more elegant age. "It's almost like a temporary revival of the monarchy," said Vienna native Alexa Brauner. "It gives you the feeling of being in an imperial city."
Brauner is an art historian, a professional Vienna city guide . . . and my date to the ball. Since my wife couldn't make a midwinter trip to Europe and my daughters have at least a decade before they're prom-ready, I was looking for a way to avoid the ignominy of the stag line. The Vienna Tourist Board put me in touch with Brauner. She agreed -- at her usual guide fee of about $120 per half-day -- to act as Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle: After a few days on the baroque and gothic streets, many cups of Viennese coffee and three one-hour waltz lessons, Brauner promised I could pass as Viennese at the ball. Just.
There are coffeehouses on almost every block of Vienna's old quarters, venerable high-ceilinged rooms filled with small tables and newspaper racks. Some are art deco or Euro-sleek chrome and glass. Others are all rich upholstery and Palladian windows, dark wood seasoned by decades of tobacco smoke and High German conversation. The coffee comes on a ritual silver tray with a tiny dish of sugar cubes and a glass of water for each customer.
At the Cafe Braunerhoff, an imperious waiter in a black bow tie and a dark goatee loomed over two-tops filled with tweedy men and woman, most absorbed with their books and magazines.
"It's a place to be alone without being lonely," said Brauner, sipping her traditional melange, a mix of espresso and hot milk.
Austrian coffeehouses are a sort of indoor version of Paris's sidewalk cafes, only brainier. The Viennese are a contemplative race, and their blocky, beautiful city -- filled with coffeehouses, museums, concert halls and pastry shops -- seems designed in every way to encourage their thoughtful habits: lingering over hot drinks, savoring little candies, musing in front of paintings. It's not hard to imagine Freud pondering his cigar in this room.
After our coffee break, Brauner pointed me toward my first dance lesson. We walked through the narrow streets of central Vienna, where each building is a face from the time of Mozart. Nearly every window is arched with an eyebrow of gable or molding; few façades are without columns or friezes. They are living buildings, with warmly lighted flats above and busy shops below.
Nothing in Vienna seems very far from anything else, and in minutes we were at the dance school (next to the Spanish Riding School of Lippizaner stallion fame). A knot of chattering teenagers crowded the door, waiting for rides home after dance practice. Are Waltz Moms an Austrian voting bloc?
If this school is the Vatican of Vienna's national religion of waltz, then Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer is its pope. The grandson of the school's founder who wrote "Der Elmayer," Vienna's bible of etiquette, he is an aristocratically handsome man. His tie knot alone -- a confident but deeply ethical half Windsor -- could only result from generations of fine breeding.
"What we teach here today is almost exactly what my grandfather was teaching," he said as 20 pairs of students whirled in the studio next door. Some of these couples will dance in the elaborate opening ceremonies of the Coffeehouse Ball. And it is Elmayer himself who will declare the ball open with the traditional cry of "Alles walzer," Let us waltz.
Even though white tie and tails are not required at the Coffeehouse Owners Ball (as it is at the Opera Ball), Elmayer always arrives in the Full Penguin. "White tie is, you might say, my corporate identity. It's much more elegant than a tuxedo, don't you think? In a tux, you are hard to distinguish from a waiter." The Levi's and sport coat I was wearing suddenly felt like mechanic's overalls.
With that, he handed me off to my first instructor, a poised but stern young Russian emigre named Xenia Jouravleva. A ballet-toughened dancer, she pushed and shoved me through the basic box step, slowly adding turns and arm position and even a little etiquette. "Avoid, always, actually touching your lips to a lady's hand," she said. "Big mistake. And when you escort your lady to the dance floor, never offer her your left arm. That is the side your weapon would be on."
Brauner had left me with a checklist of Vienna musts to work through over the next two days. I shed my jeans for black trousers, which she approved as more suitably European, and I made the rounds. In Vienna, that means music. A monthly listing of concerts looks like a cable TV listing, with scores of events at dozens of venues. It was only 30 paces from my hotel to see Seiji Ozawa conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Bach, Bruckner and, of course, Richard Strauss. (His ovation for Strauss's "Don Juan" was a good 10 minutes long. They really, really like the Strausses here.)
Vienna is also a major museum city, and some impressive new ones have opened recently: The Albertina, a refurbished corner of the Hapsburg Palace, is a collection of graphic arts dating to Leonardo da Vinci. The old imperial stables have now become the Museum Quarter, a sprawling, eclectic complex of galleries and cafes; and Vienna is particularly abuzz with the opening this month of the Liechtenstein Museum, a hugely important private collection of European masterpieces that was whisked out of Austria during World War II.
After three days of such high culture, two more waltz lessons and my nightly visit to the bratwurst stand, I felt pretty well acclimatized. By Friday night, I was ready to strap on the old Soup-and-Fish and face the ball with a schnitzel of confidence.
It wasn't glamour on an Oscar-night scale -- not too many dangerously plunging necklines and very few audacious cummerbunds. But it was a dazzling concentration of Old World elegance in a setting straight from the Age of Fairy Tales. There was a Scotsman in a full-dress kilt. And one young beauty, with purple hair and a backless green gown, had a tattoo on her shoulder of the Austrian Imperial Eagle Crest. In Vienna, you can be punk and a monarchist, too.
We wandered through the endless rooms. One was decorated to resemble a Venetian coffeehouse, another a German beer hall. At any given time, an orchestra, chamber ensemble, big band, jazz combo and pop cover band would be playing in different parts of the palace -- until 4 a.m. (Per our agreement, Brauner would turn back into a civilian at midnight, when her boyfriend would pick her up. I would stay on until 2, with the crowd undiminished and a disco throbbing in the basement.) Cash bars were everywhere and a thronged gourmet buffet line sold sushi, roasted chicken and lots and lots of sausage. Most of the rooms were filled with crowded tables. There was a working casino, a juried chocolate-carving contest, a table of Viennese torts (for sale) and, oddly, a booth promoting tourism to Qatar.
Finally, we squeezed into the State Ballroom, just in time for the opening processional: Scores of couples glided onto the floor and -- after some speechifying by dignitaries in red sashes and an aria from "Die Fledermaus" -- the young ladies and gentleman danced an exquisite Polonaise.
"Alles walzer!"cried Herr Elmayer when they were finished. And we bolted for the floor.
All the training and conditioning came to this moment; I practically quivered with Viennese influences. The maestro launched the orchestra into Johann Strauss II's "Vienna Blood," and I put my cuff-linked right hand lightly on Brauner's back. We raised our left hands to exactly the right point between my eye level and hers, counted a silent six beat and . . . couldn't move.
It was a mob scene. Of the 5,000-plus people at the ball, most seemed to be on the floor at that moment. It was like trying to dance on the Red Line at rush hour. Cattle in a Kansas City stockyard had more personal space than we had under that constellation of crystal chandeliers.
I took my first step and promptly planted my foot between the shoes of somebody else's date. But slowly, the multitude began to turn counterclockwise, picking up speed until it was less like Times Square on New Year's Eve and more like a roller rink during the all skate. Around and around we went, with elbows up not so much for form as to protect us from the other hurtling bodies.
By the end of a few dances, though, we'd gotten the hang of moving our bubble through that stylish whirlpool. And in the crush, I realized I was a passable Viennese waltzer simply because I was hidden from the bow tie down. I could have been tap dancing in my SpongeBob boxer shorts for all that the others could see of my leg work.
It was a relief, actually. Later, in some of the smaller rooms, I would see some truly suave waltzing that would confirm my sub-amateur status. But for the moment, I was thrilled to be an indistinguishable part of a waltzing Viennese gala.
It was, I have to say, a ball.
BALL SEASON: There are Vienna balls almost all year long, including the popular alternative Life Ball on May 15 to benefit AIDS patients. But the classic ball season is winter, starting with the
Imperial Ball on Dec. 31 and peaking with the spectacular
Opera Ball in late February. Ticket prices vary. For the mid-level
Coffeehouse Owners Ball, the city's biggest, individual tickets were about $105, not including food and drink at the cash bars. For information, schedules and how to contact individual balls, see the Web site of the Austrian National Tourism Office (see below). Dance lessons at the
Elmayer Dance School (011-43-1-512-7197,
), Vienna's most famous, cost about $67 per 50 minutes. They can make remarkable progress with you in just one or two lessons.
WHERE TO STAY: For the full ball experience, Vienna boasts some fine aristocratic hotels. Starwood's
Hotel Imperial (Kaerntner Ring 16, 800-325-3589,
) is a wedding cake of a former palace on the boulevard that loops around the city's old quarter. Its royal suites run in the thousands, but off-season Web deals dip to the low $200s next ball season. (Keep an eye on
Hotel Sacher (Philharmonikerstrasse 4, 011-43-1 -514-560,
) is another Vienna classic, famous for its chocolate Sacher tort, with rooms in about the same range as the Hotel Imperial. The Austrian tourism site (see below) lists a broad range of centrally located hotels and special offers.
WHERE TO EAT: Vienna's food is hearty and Germanic. My favorites -- aside from the never-ending parade of tortes and chocolates in this sweets-loving city -- were
wurstelstands, all-night sausage stands where a flavorful bratwurst on a paper plate with mustard and a hunk of dense bread costs about $5. But there is higher-end food as well. One of the city's best meals may be in the new
Palais Coburg (Coburgbastei 4),
a mansion sleekly modernized into a hotel and restaurant with a vast wine cellar, a hip cocktail bar and an ambitious, inventive take on Austrian cooking.
Austrian National Tourist Office, 212-944-6880,
-- Steve Hendrix