Vienna's Got Balls
BY Matthew Breen
January 11 2012 5:00 AM ET
The occasion for my visit in early spring 2011 was the culmination of the ball season, Vienna's grand tradition of glorious formal waltzes, where tails and tiaras are de rigueur. There are dozens of such balls thrown by all manner of groups: The Vienna Philharmonic hosts one, the professional organization of pharmacists hosts one — and naturally, the gays throw a few. And each year, the most formal and the queerest of the season's events share a calendar date.
The Opera Ball, held at the magnificent Vienna State Opera, is the undisputed pinnacle of the ball season, and European cultural icons, high society, and international heads of state are likely to be found there. The formal dress code is strictly enforced, and rigorous tryouts are required for anyone wishing to take part in the traditional polonaise dance that opens nearly every ball in Vienna. It's stately but, I'm told, stuffy.
The annual Rosenball ("Rose Ball"), on the other hand, is a massive queer party. The 2011 event was its 20th anniversary, and the dress code was more of an anything-goes affair — specifically, anything fabulous goes. Dressed in everything from tuxes to drag to wild, glittery, and outrageously skimpy costumes, guests are everything but casual.
The event simultaneously mocks and takes part in the notable elements of the ball tradition. The setting, the Palais Auersperg, a baroque palace completed in 1710, is suitably grand. But the evening opens with a comic drag polonaise, revelers dance under laser lights to thumping disco instead of Strauss, and DJs and house divas take the place of orchestral accompaniment. And you can bet this is the only ball where the dancers on the stage are hunky go-go guys. After 1 a.m., I noticed a trickle of more formally attired guests arriving; having sampled the more staid traditions of the Opera Ball, these folks were ready to get a little sweaty dancing with the flamboyant crowd at the Rosenball (Rosenball.eu).
After enough gin-and-tonics to reinforce my courage and bolster my rusty German, I spoke to a handsome Austrian who was stationed at the main dance floor bar while his female friend tried to get the attention of the straight, shirtless bartender. His first sly glances across the bar belied the beaming smile I'd soon discover, and I was quickly disabused of the notion of any Viennese arrogance. (Truth be told, whatever was true of that reputation has since faded. I found the Viennese to be as friendly as people in many European cities, and far friendlier than those in many other places I've visited.)
The event went into the wee hours and included a very late after-party. Night owls never fear: You'll have options until dawn.
The other LGBT events of the season include the more ceremonial Regenbogenball ("Rainbow Ball"; Regenbogenball.at), where formal attire is required, even if one is cross-dressing. The traditional waltz is the order of the day, and event proceeds go to the Homosexual Initiative Vienna. The Mauerblümechenball ("Wallflower Ball"; H-A-P-P-Y.net/mauer) is free and informal, and has a more ironic dress code of nerdy cardigans and horn-rimmed glasses, as exemplified by the organizers' professed love of beige.
Though outside the ball season, the Life Ball (LifeBall.org; typically in May) is another gay-popular event, and one of the best-known AIDS events in the world, drawing celebrity entertainers and guests. Revelers get a discounted ticket if they dress in the costume described in the party's "Style Bible," and shirtless men often get a discount on their entry ticket sometime after 2 a.m.
After a long night out, some hearty food was in order. Vienna's cuisine is a blend of traditional and modern, a mix emblematic of the entire city. Meeting over a meal is key to gay life in Vienna, and while a true bon vivant might have known this, it had to be pointed out to me that Viennese cuisine is the only cuisine in the world to be named after a city. It's often to be found in a classic beisl, like a bistro, with dark wood paneling, a bar, and simple tables and chairs. Schnitzel (veal or pork pounded flat, breaded, and fried), pastries, soup with pancake strips, and goulash constitute the basis of menus.