By Amber Gibson
Updated March 06, 2020
Richard Schuster

I never went to a high school dance, but here I am, swirling around the dance floor beneath the gilded ceiling of the Musikverein. Thank goodness for my dashing dance partner, nimbly navigating our path among the Viennese beau monde as we waltz, rumba, and even polka, which is reminiscent of Disneyland's Mad Tea Party ride for me. We're spinning so quickly that I'm not sure if my feet are touching the floor half the time.

Balls are big in Vienna. Every winter, more than a hundred balls are held in January and February for all manner of professions, from the Jägerball for hunters to the BonBon Ball for chocolatiers. The televised Opera Ball is the biggest and most well-known, but the Philharmonic Ball is even more exclusive and elegant.

Richard Schuster

A formal procession welcomes the guests of honor, which included the Princess of Thailand this year, then the debutantes take to the floor for a beautifully choreographed opening. Once Herr Elmayer, the headmaster of Vienna's most prestigious dance school, announces “Alles walzer!” the velvet ropes open and everyone floods the dance floor. It's pretty intimidating to go down right away and dance with all the debutantes, since a crowded dance floor can be a little bit like bumper cars. But I down my glass of sekt and join the fray.

Single ladies can find a dance partner near the stage at what's called the herreninsel – or island of men. These taxi-dancers are from the hosting dance school and waltzed in the opening ceremony, so you're sure to be in good hands. Or, like my international girlfriends and me, you can hire your private escort taxi-dancer for the entire evening. Hours earlier, we were nibbling Imperial torte (far tastier than the ubiquitous Sacher torte) and drinking Champagne in the Royal Suite at the Hotel Imperial across the street, where everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Lady Gaga has stayed, while getting our hair and makeup done for the evening.

The Viennese waltz is double the speed of the English waltz, and you're always spinning clockwise. As long as you know the basic rotational waltz step and can do a little swing, you should be fine on the main dance floor. There's always the discotheque in the basement playing Europop if you're really a lost cause.

I'd never heard of the quadrille before, but if I ever get married, we're dancing this at my wedding. You've likely seen it in Keira Knightley movies. When the clock strikes midnight (and again at 2 a.m. because einmal ist keinmal), everyone lines up in rows on the dance floor. You stand beside your partner — the woman on the right — directly across from another couple. Herr Elmayer calls out the steps for each new sequence and then los geht's. There's the chaîne anglaise, a balancé is always followed by a tour de main, and at some point, everyone (except me) is raucously chanting in German. In between sequences, couples gallop back and forth between rows across the length of the dance floor, trying not to crash into others. The final sequence from the Fledermaus-Quadrille is repeated six times, each time faster than the last, and by the end, it's the most joyful chaos. Everyone's laughing and it's no big deal if you don't know the steps. Forget the Macarena and Cha Cha Slide. Why can't we be sophisticated enough to do the quadrille at our dance parties in America?

Seven hours fly by, with the septuagenarian couples still going strong when the ball closes at 5 a.m. The teenage debutantes will head to school in just a couple of hours, but I barely make it out of my dress before tumbling into bed at the Hotel Imperial, waking up face down in a pillow strewn with false eyelashes. I didn't think I'd stay the whole night or drink an entire magnum of sekt, but I've never had so much fun dancing before in my life. I'm usually the girl happy to sit in the corner and watch everyone's handbags. I'm pretty sure my life just peaked, and now I'm back to being a pumpkin.

Richard Schuster

What to Know If You Go to a Viennese Ball

Buying a Ticket: Nearly all of the hundreds of balls in Vienna are open to the public, and you can even purchase tickets online for many. Consider purchasing a table, too. If you just have a general admission ticket, it's hard to jockey for a view of the opening ceremony.

Taking Waltz Lessons: Brush up on your Viennese waltz before the big day with a private lesson at Elmayer or Thomas Kraml dance schools.

Renting a Gown or Tuxedo: Modehaus Vondru has a nice selection for men and women, and their tailors are tops. Select your gown the day before the ball and have it delivered directly to your hotel room the following afternoon. Rentals are €300, including a fitting, adjustments, and cleaning.

Pro Tip: Book a massage the following day. Your feet will thank you. The Ritz-Carlton Vienna has an excellent spa.

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