Thursday, February 14, 2008

Viennese Waltz: Regenbogen Ball

The Viennese winter is very happening: it is the ball season. Last year I had been to the BOKU Ball organized at the Hofburg palace by the Agriculture University of Vienna; and this year Fabien and I checked out the Regenbogen Ball ("Rainbow Ball") a queer ball at a hotel near the Schönbrunn Palace. Last's year's trip was from the lab-- a kind of leaving party of my colleague, Dieter, who was moving to Paris. And since I'm leaving Vienna soon, I was determined not to miss probably the last chance of going to a gay traditional ball.
Starting with the New Year's Kaiserball (Imperial Ball), the official ball season runs until Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday), the first day of lent, sometime in Feb or early March. However, if Ash Wednesday falls early, like this year (6th Feb), there are so many annual balls in a season, that these always run well into March. [One of the famous off-season balls is the AIDS charity ball, the Life Ball, in early summer-- the largest such event that attracts a lot of famous personalities (Elton John is a regular for example) . But the Lifeball is costume ball, and they encourage you to come in garish creative costumes. There is an associated fashion show as well, and a famous designer (e.g. Donatella Versace) is associated with it each year. But I'm not blogging about these non-traditional balls.]

The traditional balls are very suave and elegant. One has to be in a suit and tie (or long dress/evening gown for women) at the minimum. For men, evening dress with a dinner jacket /tuxedo, without or with tails, with bowtie, cummerbund etc are preferred and occasionally essential. Many places (I guess, most places) allow traditional/national costume as well... and for the Austrians, it is the tracht (with lederhosen) for men and drindl for women.

These balls are held in grand settings, at the imperial Hofburg Palace, the Rathhaus etc. And of course, being a ball, one is supposed to dance. Nowadays floors or salsa/latin dance floors are also included in these events, but by far the most important and most popular is ballroom dancing, and the most popular dance being the Wiener Walzer or the Viennese Waltz.

Dancing and Me?
I have never been much of a dancer. When I was in college in Kolkata, a school friend of mine, Samarjit, was learning German at the Goethe Institut, but the main reason he had joined the course was to socialize... and the dance parties. I was of course a shy kid at that time and big-time inhibited in general. Plus I wasn't (and still am not) into Western popular music. And dance parties didn't appeal to me all that much. After I moved to Pune, our department had quite a few dance parties, and I used to go there, and watch my friends dancing and having a good time. I was tempted to join them, but I was still too inhibited and found it kinda embarassing because I didn't know what to do, how to dance. Occasionally I was dragged onto the floor (and given instructions as to what to do), but it didn't last for long and I managed to wriggle out. Same in IISc and Tübingen. In Heidelberg I went to my first gay parties, and after the initial hesitation, I tried it out. Now that was fun... there were so many gorgeous guys around and dancing with and around them was great. I still wasn't (and even now am not) too keen about the music, but then I could feel the rhythm and move my legs, body and hands, and that's after all, all that is required. I wouldn't say I am a party animal in Vienna, but I do occasionally go clubbing to gay places with friends and do dance-- and enjoy it.
When I got to know Fabien two and a half years ago, I was his only gay friend (in fact I still am among his few close gay friends) and often a mentor in the gay world. He suggested we go to the annual gay ball, the Regenbogen Ball. That was 2006. I said no way-- I don't know even the basics of ballroom dancing.

BOKU Ball and Dancing Lessons
My colleague, Dieter, was to move to Paris in spring last year and Karen was to leave in another half a year. Karen and Dieter suggested we go to a traditional Viennese Ball as a lab outing-- it could be a kind of leaving party for Dieter. I said why not, though it had to be at a grand place-- I prefer the Hofburg Palace. We decided on the BOKU Ball, as being organized by a university, it would be less formal, with more young people and cheaper for the students (i.e. Karen, Dieter and Martin). I wasn't too worried, as I had no intention of dancing... hanging around in the gorgeous Hofburg Palace rooms with elegantly dressed people would be sufficient for me. My Argentinian friend, Leo, was also going with his friends, so apart from the lab people, I'd have company too.
Yet, it would be nice to be able to dance too. So on an impulse, I checked out dance courses, zeroed in on one nearby offering classes soon-- the same week-- and at convenient times, and called Fabien to ask if he would be interested to join in the course as well. He'd have to be spontaneous enough to decide at such a short notice and spontaneity certainly isn't Fabien's strong point, althought he has improved a lot in my company. He surprisingly agreed and we signed up to a course for singles. Unfortunately there were only three classes before my scheduled ball, and we didn't get to learn much before that.
The ball was fun, but I only danced at the disco. Anton suggested I try to waltz with his wife, but I stupidly enough didn't go for it. The Hofburg was really marvellous, and the ball and particularly the waltzes seemed like great fun.

The beginner's course taught us the basics of some 12 dances including the Slow Waltz, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Cha-Cha-Cha, Rumba, Boogie and very elementary Tango and Samba. I have a problem with counting (or following) the rhythm sometimes, and certainly find it difficult to figure out what dance goes with what music. But I enjoyed the classes. We were made to change partners very often. Some were good fun, some bad, some boring, some indifferent, some unfriendly. I realized once again that dancing is very sexual for me-- I enjoy dancing with men, rather than dancing itself... and this was of course dancing with opposite-sex partners only. Fabien was also frustrated "dancing with fat women"-- it came to a height exactly a year ago, on Valentine's Day... we had the dance class and hated that fact that even on this day we had to dance with "fat women". So we went to the Villa to have a quick dinner before-- to add at least some gay touch to the day. Fabien didn't even complete the course.
I enjoyed some of the dances, but my favourite was the Viennese Waltz. Not only do I like the music very much, but unlike the slow waltz, it is much much faster.
We could have gone to the regular balls of the dance school, but we never did. I was going to Paris that summer, so I couldn't take the next level of course, and Fabien was NOT interested in "dancing with fat girls" any more... he even didn't turn up for the classes in last couple of weeks. And there was no practice until I decided to go to the Regenbogen Ball.

Planning and Preparation
It was a shame that I enjoyed the Wiener Walzer (Viennese waltz), but never had any formal occasion to dance it. After I move India in spring, I doubt I'll be attending balls, so I reckoned I had to do it before I left Europe. So not much time left. As I have said, dancing with women isn't as much fun for me, so a gay ball would be better. The best option, hence, was the Regenbogen Ball. It was on a Saturday too. And this was probably the last chance of going there. Even if I visit Europe/Vienna afterwards, I doubt, it'll be in the cold winter. I had to do it now! So after I got back from India, I started calling people to see whether they'd be interested-- if enough of my gay friends joined in, it could be a leaving party for me. Unfortunately, most of my friends were either away or not well or too busy that weekend, and it was only Fabien and I who decided to go for the ball. Leo had bought tickets too, but he got a cold. Another friend of mine, Gernot, was going to be there. He is in a semi-professional dance group as a serious hobby, and their group would be performing the opening dances at the ball. In fact it was while talking to him that I got the idea of going to the ball.
The problem was that both Fabien and I were rusty with our dancing skills that were shaky to begin with. We decided to have a few practice sessions before the ball. I had a cd of the waltzes composed by the Strausses. We practised a few times at Fabien's place. The first practice was a disaster. We called Leo, but learnt that he was ill and wouldn't even be able to make it for the ball. The second practice was better. We were supposed to meet before the ball for the last practice. That morning I was talking to Christof and trying to urge him to come along, when he suggested that although he wasn't in the mood for the ball, he'd love to give me a crash course. I went to his place, and we tried it and I was confident of the Wiener Walzer once again. And after that the practice with Fabien was much smoother too.

The Regenbogen Ball and Wiener Walzer
The ball was on the 26th of Jan, a Saturday, in the evening. People were mostly in suits or in evening dress. Many people were in tails. Some in drag, and a few in costume. Christof had warned us that we should reach sufficiently ahead of time to get good positions to see the Eröffnung (the Opening of the ball) that was to be at 9pm. We nevertheless got late, and had to negotiate the crowds and crane our neck to see the opening dances. There was a group from the organizers and also the Gernot's group that performed the opening dances. And then the floor was thrown open to the public. The stupid Fabien had bought new dress shoes the same day, and obviously his feet were killing him. We danced several the Wiener Walzers... although I had practised a the steps of a few more dances with Christof, we didn't venture into any of those dances. But the Wiener Walzer was good fun. We met Gernot later (it was difficult to recognize him because of his "Japanese" costume... a part of his performance), and he made a date with me-- we were to meet at the main ballroom at 2am and dance. He'd have to get out of his costume into tails first.
Fabien and I danced, checked out the other stuff (like the Jazz), the other floors, and of course the guys. I met a few people I knew. At midnight there was the Quadrille, where everybody gathers together on the floor in paired rows facing each other. A director directs what to do and a dance is created. The pairs dance with each other and also with the neighbours. It's supposed to be good fun. Unfortunately we and our neighbours messed up and created chaos at our end. But it was fun. We also spent some time at the disco downstairs. Fabien left at 2am. He said he was tired, and also his feet were extremely painful. I waited for Gernot.
Gernot and I started dancing at 2:30am. Gernot is of course an expert dancer. Although I was leading when dancing with Fabien-- it seems more natural for me (and Fabien prefers to be led), Gernot's an expert dancer and it would make much more sense for him to lead. It was a fabulous experience. Waltz, as you might know, is based on a rhythm of three beats. The Wiener Walzer is faster and the very Viennese supposedly make the last two beats slightly quicker than the first one. You make a half turn (180°) with each complete rhythm (in the slow waltz you make a 1/4th or 1/3rd turn). So one goes round and round and at the same time moving around the floor. On a crowded floor the one who leads has to take care to avoid bumping into others (very difficult as I realized when I was leading Fabien) as you navigate around the floor. One could turn right or left, but the right turn is easier, so most people do that... we were never taught the left turn, in fact. At the end of a dance, one's head is spinning because of the turns. Gernot being an excellent dancer made navigation seem like cake walk, we did left turns as well, and what I enjoyed most were the high-speed spins. I hadn't known about these, but instead of following the regular steps, the dancing pair can just spin extremely fast with the music. I would never be able to do that and keep track of the room, but it the Gernot is an expert. It was just fun to let go. We danced 4-5 dances and then went for a drink and a chat. Then Gernot went to his other friends. There were some music programs as well. The stuff was to end at 5am. I spent some time at the disco and came up again at 4pm. I didn't know people so I was just sitting watching other people dance. At 4.30am, I noticed Harald, Christof's ex-boyfriend, standing alone, so I went to him and asked whether he wanted to dance. We danced the last waltzes as well as other simpler stuff towards the end. The last dance was great fun too... called a marching dance, where people jump around the room in one direction and then suddenly someone changes direction and everybody follows too. This ends by couples going through a "tunnel" formed by other couples joining hands above... the couple in the tunnel joins the tunnel when he gets out of it. It was good fun.

Gernot saw me dancing and came to me after the marching dance ended. Since he lives quite close to my place, we took the underground together. I got back home at 5:45am or so after a most delightful night.

I wish this weren't my first and last Regenbogen Ball. I wish I had taken dancing classes earlier and had been to a few of these balls. But I am happy that I decided to do this before leaving Vienna. It would have been nicer if more of my friends had joined in, but it was fun nevertheless.

No comments: