Remember how on prom night you got to dress up and wear sparkly heels and awkwardly wait for your dad to take pictures of you and your date...
Remember how on prom night you got to dress up and wear sparkly heels and awkwardly wait for your dad to take pictures of you and your date exchanging corsages in the front yard? And then remember how you got to slip away in a borrowed minivan, feeling like royalty, and dance away the night in an auditorium full of crepe paper?
That’s kind of how a Viennese ball feels, only probably with less crepe paper.
After attending her first Viennese ball in Washington, D.C., last December, Seattle-based dance instructor Lilli Ann Carey has decided to bring the grandiose Austrian tradition back home. She is funding and organizing “An Evening in Vienna,” a formal ball Sunday open to anyone willing to don frilly duds and test his or her toes at a box step.
Born from the cloistered dance halls of European high-society in the early 19th century, Viennese balls first became popular among the Boston Brahman and the Southern belles around 1840. To this day, balls feature theatrical curtsies and choreographed marches straight from the pages of “Pride and Prejudice.” So why bring a world of white gloves and black ties to our Emerald shores — a place unversed in the pomp and circumstance of Elizabeth Bennet’s world?
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“It’s going to be really fun, first of all,” explains Carey. “And second, it’s about time Seattle had one.”
In the late 19th century, wealthy Americans went crazy for Viennese balls. They briefly fell out of favor when ragtime took the dance halls by storm at the turn of the century but have, since the 1940s, been an annual mainstay in most major American cities even west of the Mississippi — relatively pomp-less Portland notwithstanding. Vienna hosts more than 400 each year. Until now, Seattle has had none.
Washington, D.C., residents Carol and Herbert Traxler have taught the basics of the Viennese ball culture — everything from how to dress to what to do with your nosegay when dancing — to the diplomatic coterie for the past 15 years. They insist that the tradition of hosting Viennese balls is more important than just recapitulating an antiquated tradition.
“An Evening in Vienna”
When: 4:30-8:45 p.m. Sunday.
Where: The East Ballroom in the Husky Union Building, at the University of Washington, Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast. Free parking is available.
Tickets: General admission $45, students $25. Purchase tickets at www.danceforjoy.biz/Registration.htm.
Class: Test-drive your one-step at a waltz prep class from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Friday, Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Ave. N., upstairs in Room 7. Free parking in the upper or lower lots. $20 payable at the door, cash or check. Participation in this class entitles guests to $10 off general admission to the ball.
More: Looking for tips on how to dress, how to get there or how to tell a Fledermaus Quadrille from a Grand March? See www.danceforjoy.biz/Vienna.htm, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 206-264-5646.
“It’s a way to meet, touch hands, enjoy a joyful evening,” says Carol Traxler, who taught Chelsea Clinton to waltz.
“And it’s worthwhile to treasure a traditional, rich elegance that is lacking from our very casual modern culture,” adds her husband, former president of the Austrian-American Society.
Dance teacher Carey, a self-described “jeans girl,” recognizes that introducing such a formal evening to a population known for its lack of social pretense is a challenge.
“Look, it’s a frivolous event. And that’s the point,” she says. “For one night, you’re getting in touch with history. You’re participating in a communion of civilization, treating yourself and each other to an exaggerated sense of graciousness, and remembering the value of living slowly. Plus, it’s fun to get all spiffed up once in a while, right?”
Unlike a few of the elite balls (where “prices are high to keep riff-raff like us out,” laughs Herbert Traxler), this event will be as inexpensive as possible, Carey says. Also, to attract people of all ages and experience, she has organized a series of classes where any potential guest can learn the basics of the waltzing whirl ahead of time.
“If you can’t tell the Schottische from the Mazurka, you will be lost,” Carey admits. “But you’ll still have a lot of fun.”
To the waltzing neophyte, a Viennese ball might seem no different than the carefully coiffed and choreographed pageants detailed in “Anna Karenina,” but “An Evening in Vienna” will follow a distinctly Austrian tradition. For instance, men will be encouraged to greet women with the traditional Austrian handkuss, wherein a gentleman kisses a lady’s hand while clicking his polished heels together and uttering the phrase, “I kiss your hand, gracious lady.” (My prom dates must have missed the memo on that one.)
Also, at 8 p.m., all the dancers will assemble for the Fledermaus Quadrille, a traditional marching dance that involves the quick exchange of partners.
While the Traxlers insist, “it’s easy, you just follow the person ahead of you,” those unaccustomed to timed step will be taught how to promenade during the orchestra’s break. In Vienna, where balls last until 4 in the morning and end with a glamorous, if slightly mussed, white-tie breakfast, the Fledermaus usually takes place at midnight, explains Herbert Traxler.
Although we modern Seattleites might perceive many of these traditions to be emphatically chaste, the Viennese ball was regarded with dismay for the exact opposite reason at the beginning of its popularity. In July 1816, The London Times wrote that “the intertwining of the limbs, and close compressure of the bodies” involved in the Viennese Waltz were an “obscene display,” against which all parents should warn their daughters. Now, if that’s not a reason to go … .
Perhaps the most famous ballgoer of all time, Cinderella, puts it best: “Oh well, what’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and … boring, and completely … “
She adds with a sigh, “Completely wonderful.”
Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or email@example.com