(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
As the newspaper’s former “social” reporter, I’ve been to a lot of parties over the years. Countless times I’ve dressed in an evening gown or little black dress and found my seat at a big banquet table set for eight or ten and made small-talk while one plate of food after another was put in front of me and my wine glass was refilled. I’ve listened to local news anchor emcees make jokes and introductions and I’ve placed bids on silent auction packages. Then, at the very end of the long evening, after the dinner and fundraising were out of the way, the band began to play and those of us who’d stuck around long enough danced.
That’s usually how we run a ball or gala in this country.
But a recent trip to Vienna, the city of grand ballrooms and the grandest dancing tradition, opened my eyes. I attended the third annual Fête Impériale at the Spanish Riding School, one of Vienna’s newest balls and the only one held in summer. Like many of the more than 450 balls held during the short winter season in Vienna, the Fete Imperiale is a fundraiser, held to support the historic Spanish Riding School and the beautiful Lipizzaner Stallions. This year more than 2,000 tickets were sold and the courtyard around the riding school and adjoining Ringstrasse was filled with women in beautiful gowns and men in elegant tuxedos.
The ball began at 9 p.m. with an opening ceremony. An aria was sung by an Italian opera singer, a brass band played, debutantes in white dresses paraded and waltzed and the ball’s founder, Elisabeth Gürtler owner of the historic Sacher Hotels, was acknowledged and saluted. At 10 p.m. the orchestra leader picked up her baton and men and women of all ages--surprisingly, many were young 20-somethings, everyone waltzes in Vienna--surged onto the specially-laid black and white parquet covering what is normally the sawdust riding school floor, and the waltzing began.
It was one of the most beautiful nights I’ve ever spent at a gala. It was one of the most beautiful nights I’ve spent anywhere. Couples whirled around the floor, spinning as they danced, smiling, surefooted and graceful. And the dancing went on for hours because that was what they’d all come for. At a ball in Vienna you do not dress up to sit down and eat. You are there to dance. There is no long banquet. When you get hungry you can buy a plate of traditional Vienna sausages and rolls or a bowl of goulash. If you’re thirsty you can buy champagne and cocktails (it is a fundraiser, after all) but no one sits down for very long. The tables are almost always empty because everyone is on the dance floor. Dancing is a passion for Austrians and waltzing is the queen of the night. At midnight, the dancing moves from the waltz to the quadrille and the floor is packed.
I stayed until almost two in the morning but when I left, strolling down quiet streets back to my hotel, the sound of my heels striking the cobblestones echoing in the night, the party was still going strong. I heard later they’d shooed out the lingerers at 4 a.m.
In a lifetime of “pinch me” moments, the Fête Impériale will always stand out. I’ve enjoyed a lot of parties, but in Vienna I really had a ball.
(You can watch a video of the Fête Impériale midnight quadrille at http://www.youtube.com/user/cherylannemillsap)
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org