I sat in the waiting room fidgeting, trying to smooth out my sweater, making sure I sat up straight, and looked as lady-like as possible in my skinny jeans and worn out travel shoes. The young kids working at the reception wore suits and dresses and they politely offered me a seat. I had tried my best to dress up my look with a colorful floral scarf as it was the nicest thing I had in my pack for this chilly, rainy day in Vienna – but I still felt out of place. Rudolf, a middle age man wearing a black suit came out and introduced himself. I firmly shook his hand. He offered to carry my ratty backpack and I fought off any natural urge to refuse his offer and be independent. After all, I was at the epicenter of etiquette in Vienna – the Elmayer Dance School – it was only proper to allow the man to carry my pack – even if it was a sloppy backpack.
This is probably the time when you ask, why in the world am I at the Vienna’s oldest and most famous dance school? Well it’s simple – I love ball room dance. Please note that loving dance and knowing how to dance are two completely different things. Sure – I have dreams of being able to dance one day – it’s even on my bucket list. And I admit to being completely addicted to Dancing with the Stars, but unfortunately I wasn’t at Elmayer School to learn how to dance – instead I was there to watch others dance and learn about this proper Austrian culture.
From the moment I arrived in Vienna I was intrigued with the famous Austrian Ball Culture. I of course looked up the schedule and found that there were no balls going on while I was visiting (which is probably ok since I had nothing to wear, nor knew how to dance), but I learned that the ballroom practice goes on all year. I was able to contact the director, Rudolf Peschke, at Elmayer School and request an interview with him and a viewing of the dance classes.
I was overly excited about this opportunity and wished that I had more time in Vienna as not only does the school teach ballroom dance, ball preparation, and etiquette classes – but they also offer private classes for people like myself. Unfortunately I wouldn’t get to live my dream of learning how to do the Viennese Waltz on this trip, but at least I would get to see what this ball culture was all about.
Rudolf politely opened doors for me and led me into a little private room where another young woman with a string of pearls draped around her neck offered me coffee. We sat down at a little table and were brought our cups of coffee on a silver tray. I shook off my uncomfortable backpacker feeling and dug in with excitement.
Like most things, dance became popular in Vienna when it was forbidden to do so back in 1800’s by the church who thought the devil was in dance. Dance was really only allowed by the emperor at that time – however what is forbidden typically finds life. The Viennese Waltz came to life from Vienna’s history of music and composers and soon dance became as important as music and opera in Vienna.
I was most curious about how it had remained so popular – especially among the young teenagers, in this world of ever-changing fads and pop culture. I mean really – what boy wants to wear white gloves and learn etiquette when you can hang out on Youtube and watch Lady Gaga videos? Apparently the kids of Vienna like the tradition of the balls in addition to MTV and Facebook. Present day balls begin at 10PM and end at 4AM, but are formal in nature with men dressed in tuxes and women in gowns. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the ball culture has changed a bit over time to accommodate the changing times. Over the years the balls have added more entertainment such as singers and special varieties of dance rooms such as disco in the 70’s.
As Rudolf and I finished our coffee he led me into the dance classroom where young teenage boys and girls were waiting for him. The girls ranged in age from 14 to 15 and the boys were older from 17+. The room was rectangular with chandeliers and a raised DJ booth in one corner. It was Friday evening and these teenagers were ready to dance and practice their ball etiquette. Yet if you looked beyond the boys in their suits and white gloves and girls in their dresses and stockings, you could see the teenagers there. They were a bit awkward – the boys were gangly and the girls were giddy and hung out in groups.
Rudolf got his teaching microphone and started his instruction as I sat in the corner watching in awe. The room immediately quieted and the kids were busy practicing how they chose their partners and promenading around the room making small talk. Making small talk is part of the etiquette lessons for the kids along with learning how to enter a ball room, holding a door, greeting someone, how to sit, how to introduce people and how to extend a hand kiss. I watched and thought about the lucky women who would meet these boys later in life with such skills. The dance schooling for teenagers normally last three years with one 1 hour class a week if they go through the complete program. In addition to etiquette they will learn all of the various ballroom dances.
Today they were practicing four different dances. I was enthralled watching the young interactions as well as impressed with how well the boys led the girls through the steps. I fixated on certain couples watching the flirtation and indifference with amusement. Overall I was transported to my world of dance and was thoroughly happy to see it all come to life in front of me. At the end of the class, the boys all said their proper farewells by taking their partners hand in their white gloved hand and gave a light hand kiss – perfect.
Next time I visit Vienna – I’m dancing.
Elmayer website – www.elmayer.at/en
Elmayer Dance School does not only join, but actively participates in the Viennese Ball scene by organizing the opening ceremonies, studying with young people, and – last but not least – having its own ball, the Elmayer Kränzchen.
Elmayer offers many different options for classes for people like myself who are simply passing through and during ball season which runs December through March. They even offer various packages which include lessons and entrance into a ball for adults. http://elmayer.at/en/dance-classes/
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