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Life’s a Ball

Ah, Vienna, the city of balls. (Okay, quit the snickering.) Maybe you’d dreamed of waltzing the night away with your own Prince Charming or Cinderella during the Austrian capital’s annual ball season. My own experience of Vienna when the whole city seems to be dancing wasn’t entirely a fairy tale. Yet it was almost all magic.

I remember dashing from Vienna’s Coffeehouse Proprietor’s Ball, bells tolling long past midnight. In fact, it’s closer to 4 a.m., but the ball I’ve left behind still bustles with finely dressed party guests. Not unlike Cinderella, I trip down the steps of Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. She fled her ball minus one glass slipper, and I hobble toward my horse-drawn carriage short a high-heeled shoe that I’ve flung off for hasty pain relief.

Whereas our fairy-tale heroine continued home in her pumpkin to await a better life, I make like the Viennese and ride a fiacre to Café Landtmann to indulge in an after-ball tradition: a spicy bowl of goulash washed down with a local beer.

The Kaffeesiederball, organized by the guild of coffee-shop owners in Vienna, dominates the Austrian city’s celebrated ball season. Second only to the prestigious Opera Ball, the Coffee Proprietor’s Ball takes place in the immense Hofburg, once the royal residence of the mighty Hapsburg clan. A warren of ornate rooms, the interconnected complex manages to house the nearly 6,000 guests who don the required tuxedos and ball gowns. Once a year they arrive, ready to waltz the entire night away.

While the event opens with a traditional parade of dignitaries and debutantes down the main promenade—not to mention a tantalizing first waltz—the party continues in nearly 60 ceremonial rooms. Many of them are distinctly themed and offering alternatives to classical music and dancing, including jazz lounges and even discos. A casino beckons the fox-trot weary, and the hungry can be satiated by any number of oyster bars and sausage wagons.

Just to wander through it all takes more than an hour.

Even the Spanish Riding School is open tonight—but rather than burly Lipizzaner stallions, its denizens are rhythmically swaying partygoers, modern renditions of princes and princesses of yore. Particularly impressive as the stage setting for dapper, enthusiastic revellers, the baroque school boasts 46 columns, tumbles of stucco ornamentation, chandeliers and profoundly regal paintings.

My Austrian friends tell me that the Kaffeesiederball particularly delights the Viennese because it celebrates their traditions. Like the Opera Ball, it follows protocol and allows for much pomp and circumstance, but it comes with a lower price tag (roughly 110 euros a ticket). While the Opera Ball takes place at the State Opera House (a public building), the Kaffeesiederball’s Hofburg venue enables entrance to many rooms normally closed to the public.

Both begin with various ceremonial proceedings, until at last comes the long-anticipated official directive from the regal dance master: “Alles waltzer” (everyone dance). And they do. All night long.

Vienna, in fact, holds more than 300 balls annually—most occur during ball season, which corresponds to Fasching, or the traditional Lenten season. The ball tradition began with Emperor Franz Josef in the early 19th century. He feared a revolt and engineered a plan to keep the common man off the streets. He invited citizens into the castle for merrymaking, thereby initiating a passion for dancing that cut across social classes. This handily coincided with Johann Strauss and what was considered his sexy new form of music: the waltz. Not only did the relatively fast-paced rhythm of his work induce heart racing, but it also required heretofore unthinkable close proximity and—gasp—touching while dancing. Naturally, the trend stuck.

Nowadays, many Austrians learn to waltz as teenagers in popular weekly classes that teach them to whirl and twirl as one with their partners—at 100 beats per minute. Daunted, the day before the ball I decide I’d better enroll in a crash course with one of the best dance teachers in town: Rudolf Peschke, director of the prestigious Elmayer

Dance School, a third-generation waltzing school located adjacent to the Hofburg.

“Waltzing is just like walking,” Peschke tells me confidently. But that’s before he tries to gambol across the well-worn floor with me stomping on his toes. “Backward, between, left, right, together, turn,” he commands.

And though I throw my heart into it, my feet don’t get the message. “Some special people,” he later confides, “need a few extra lessons.”

Like Vienna’s 30 or so other schools, Elmayer teaches the requisite courses to teenagers—and anyone wanting to brush up on their dancing skills. Visitors who seek to delve into Vienna culturally can enroll in walk-in courses around the city or order up private lessons at places like Elmayer. While the short courses do wonders in demystifying the art of Viennese waltzing, they aren’t likely to give birth to the next Fred Astaire. In fact, when I do waltz at the Kaffeesiederball, amid a mad crowd of perfect hoofers, I feel more like I’m being carried by a mosh pit—albeit an unusually elegant one. I sense the waltzing thing takes some time.

To get into regal character before the ball, I check into the Imperial Hotel. Built in the late 19th century for the Prince of Wurttemberg, this neo-Renaissance mansion sits on the Ringstrasse just minutes from the Hofburg. A glorious rendition of high stucco ceilings, carved embellishments and exquisite antiques, it exudes luxury. Just mounting the so-called royal staircase beneath glittery chandeliers makes me believe I can waltz. And that miracles can happen.

But what I like best about the Imperial has to be its discreet service. When I trip home after goulash, ball-bedraggled at 5 a.m., the doorman doesn’t bat an eye. He tips his hat and says, “Guten Abend [good evening], madame,” as if it weren’t morning at all. And as if I weren’t about to be transformed into just another post-ball princess wannabe.

Gay-friendly, and then some

Ball season or any other time, LGBT visitors to Vienna will find themselves comfortably at home in the Austrian capital. Here is a mini-guide to some of the charming city’s gay highlights.

HAND HOLDING Although the locals pride themselves on an open attitude throughout the city, gay couples who feel the need for PDAs tend to gravitate toward the Ringstrasse Boulevard. Another similarly welcoming spot is the area around the open-air Naschmarkt, which is home to a gay-and-lesbian centre.

CAFÉ SCENE Like other European capitals, Vienna is filled with cafés where watching the world go by seems almost an art form. Some of the most popular among LGBT locals and tourists is the semi-funky Café Willendorf. The regal-looking Café Savoy is something of an institution. Less formal gathering spots include the Mango Bar and Chameleon. Café Berg is located beside the popular Löwenherz gay bookstore.

SPLURGING Besides it celebrated views, LeLoft, the restaurant atop the SofitelStephansdom hotel, features the cuisine of noted French chef Hervé Pronzato. The New York Times recently described LeLoft as “a favoured destination of the city’s stylish set.”

LODGING LGBT travellers like La Prima Fashion Hotel for its stylishness and proximity to gay attractions. Visitors on a tight budget might consider the Motel One Wien Westbahnhof, with its easy access to the metro and train station. The Hotel-Pension Wild is a classic; shared baths for lower-priced rooms.

ARTS Not to be missed in this city of small museums and galleries is the prestigious Kunsthistorisches Museum. Besides its unique coin and manuscript collections, there are stunning works by Rembrandt, Bruegel and Vermeer.

ANNUAL EVENT Vienna’s late-June Rainbow Parade has become one of the world’s leading LGBT celebrations.

INFORMATION www.vienna.info; travel@austria.info