Sway, Rise, Fall: Waltzing into the Heart of Vienna

In full swing in the Austrian capital.
Dancing Vienna Austria
Vienna has a vibrant annual calendar of balls. The Viennese put great effort into brushing up their dance skills and getting the right outfits in time for ball season. Photo courtesy Wientourismus

Tucking my arm in his elbow, Bernd opens the door with a little bow and ushers me into the ballroom. Our reflections seem to sparkle in the tall mirrors embedded in the wood panelled walls. I curtsy and take my position for the waltz.

The music begins and we start spinning around the room in a wide circle. I keep my chin up, and my eyes focused on a point two inches off Bernd’s left shoulder, trying hard not to get giddy as the tempo picks up. Our feet seem to fly in time with the music. Then he says something that makes me look at him and smile, and snap, I lose my step and stomp on his foot. That’s only the first time. Over eight hours of lessons during the week, I will find myself apologising profusely to Bernd time and again.

Vienna Austria

The streets of Vienna’s inner districts are a delightful conflation of the old and new. Classical architecture and modern art thrive side by side along with old-style cafés with brightly painted exteriors. Photo: Anshika Varma

One of the first things I did while planning my week-long trip to the Austrian capital Vienna was sign up for waltz lessons at Elmayer Dance School, the best in the city. I’m super excited to learn the waltz. It is a part of European classical culture I have read about and been fascinated with since my days at college, when I studied English literature. Our antiquated curriculum was populated with British and European writing describing a culture that was completely unfamiliar. With each tome read, I built a mental image of a place where erudite men and women, dressed to the hilt, were moved to tears by grand operas. They danced at enormous balls, discussed philosophy in coffee shops, and changed the world as they walked down cobbled lanes, their footsteps echoing in the annals of history long after they were gone. I had devoured descriptions of elaborate ballrooms with sparkling chandeliers, sculptures and fountains, and beautiful attire with intricate embellishments and embroidery. I’d read paeans to elegant arms encased in elbow-long satin gloves and listened to “The Blue Danube,” Johann Strauss II’s most famous composition. He was among the many composers and musicians drawn to Vienna, which was known as Europe’s music capital. Coming here, I wondered if I would get to partake of the European classical culture that I had read about and seen in movies, but never experienced.

As it turned out, the week in April when my colleague, photographer Anshika Varma, and I landed in Vienna, the temperature plunged to 10°C and a biting cold wind hectored the city’s streets. The Viennese we met, from the check-in clerk to our guide Alexa, didn’t fail to point out our bad luck, recounting the bright skies of the previous week and rueing the unexpected weather. Gaily, they’d add: “But that’s why we have a proverb about it—Spring does what he wants.”

Spring might have been feeling capricious but we certainly weren’t going to let the weather come in the way of enjoying our stay. Bundled up in all our layers, we stubbornly set out to explore the city while the locals wisely stayed warm and dry at home. With Alexa we wandered through the narrow lanes of Vienna’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its most recognisable sight is St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with distinctive Gothic towers like pointy fingers reaching into the sky. Its steep sloping roofs are covered in colourful mosaics of the double-headed eagle of the Habsburgs, the family that ruled the region for seven centuries, and the coat of arms of the city of Vienna. The only others braving the rain and cold were tourists like us, trying not to shiver as they took selfies.

Sauntering around Stephanplatz square, we watched tourists warming their hands on mugs of hot coffee. Men dressed in sweeping red coats flirted with everyone who crossed their path, cajoling them to buy concert tickets. A smiling three-year-old blackmailed his grandma into emptying every last coin from her purse to toss into a fountain, while grandpa held an umbrella over their heads. At Demel, a famous 1786 pastry shop that created delicious confections for the Habsburg court, we celebrated our temporary escape from the chill with cups of hot milky coffee and a slice of delicious Annatorte—a layered chocolate cake topped with artistic folds of milk chocolate and accompanied by dollops of rich unsweetened cream. Returning outside, we oohed over the window display at Lobmeyr, the one-time supplier of glassware to the imperial court, and marvelled over miniature chocolates placed in tiny chests of drawers at Altmann and Kühne. But the most memorable image of that first day was of two mechanical figures waltzing in a shop window. I don’t remember what the store sold, but I can still see the white rose in the man’s evening jacket and the woman’s pearl-studded burgundy gown. And the endless dance they were locked in. I could hardly wait for our first waltz lesson the next day.

Waltzing Vienna Austria

Participants in a dance class line up by the mirrored walls of Elmayer Dance School to check their posture. Photo: Anshika Varma

The rain continues unabated so Anshika and I arrive at our first class clad in boots and warm pants, hair damp from the rain and noses red from the walk. The first couple of hours are easy, as our instructors Bernd and Peter break the waltz down into small steps that we repeat again and again until we think we have them down pat. Stringing them together is a whole other matter, and within seconds it seems like we’ve forgotten what we’d practiced so much.

Under the garb of journalistic curiosity, I take frequent breaks between many missteps to catch my breath, filling the gaps with questions. To my surprise I learn that it’s not just tourists like me who sign up to learn the waltz. Located in the throbbing centre of Vienna’s Old Town, Elmayer Dance School’s mainstay is the regular classes that local students sign up for during their final years in high school. One of the reasons for this is that the Viennese version of the high school graduation prom is a ball where they dance the waltz and the quadrille, an energetic group dance. The waltz classes are also popular among young Viennese because they’re about more than just dance. Peter tells us that teenagers learn a number of other useful life skills including good posture, handling awkward social situations, and introducing themselves to strangers or at job interviews.

There was another interesting aspect I picked up.

Waltzing Vienna Austria

Waltz instructors demonstrate a difficult step—the reverse turn. The Viennese waltz is fairly simple to learn, so accomplished dancers often add a few flourishes to showcase their skills. Photo: Anshika Varma

The dynamic between men and women has changed so much since the waltz was first danced that the way it is taught has had to evolve as well. Bernd and Peter were careful to tell us that the only way the dance can work is if we allow them to lead. “We know you’re intelligent women who make your own decisions, but while you’re here, just for this dance, relax and let us look after you,” Bernd said. Only once we nodded our approval did the lessons begin.

Vienna’s robust annual calendar of about 450 balls indicates  that dance is a vibrant part of modern social life in the city. The city’s most famous balls are the New Year’s Eve Ball at the Hofburg Palace and the Opera Ball at the Vienna State Opera. Different organisations also throw their own balls, like the Doctors’ Ball or the Lawyers’ Ball. Going to these events is a popular social activity. I’m impressed to see this old tradition not just surviving, but thriving in Vienna. And, I soon discover, that like dance, many other aspects of European classical culture live on here. The Vienna State Opera still hosts productions regularly, many of which are sold out months in advance. The city’s famous coffee shops are still the staging ground for intellectual conversations about art, culture, and philosophy. Its museums showcase the works of great artists from Picasso and Rembrandt to the famous Austrian symbolist Gustav Klimt. And all of this can easily be accessed by a visitor to the city.

During the second dance lesson, the pace picks up. I discover that what is popularly known as the waltz is the English or slow waltz. The Viennese waltz which we are learning is about three times faster. Our instructors start us off with the slow waltz and once we perfect that they begin to pick up the pace. I keep looking down to check I’m doing the steps right, and that inevitably leads to disaster. I’m relieved when Ilse, our guide for the day shows up, signalling the end of the class.

With her, we visit Schönbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Habsburgs. It’s a rural setting surrounded by thickets, but the rooms and the grand halls are a lot like those of Hofburg Palace, right in the city centre. The Habsburgs were great patrons of music. This made Vienna a desirable destination for artists we now consider greats, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Franz Schubert to Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Johann Strauss II, who was known as “The Waltz King.” It is here in the palace’s grand ballrooms that dances were held to music by these great composers. The rooms are richly decorated with high, ornate ceilings and tapestries on the wall. It’s easy to imagine stylishly dressed men and women gracefully gliding across the gleaming marble floors.

Palace Vienna Austria

Schönbrunn Palace was the summer getaway of the royal Habsburg family and is surrounded by sprawling lawns, a hedge maze, it’s own tiny vineyard, and an orangery. Photo: Anshika Varma

It’s only during our final dance lesson that something seems to click into place. Anshika and I have become comfortable enough with the steps of the waltz to resist the temptation of looking down at our feet as we dance. Bernd plays a waltz for us to dance to, and we whirl rapidly around the room like spinning tops, going faster and faster. The lesson ends in laughter instead of apologies. That evening we return to watch one of the regular classes for school students. The boys are dressed in suits and gloves, the girls wear heels and skirts that Peter says are supposed to be knee length. “But I think they don’t know where their knees are!” he jokes. It’s endearing to watch the boys kissing the girls’ hands, the girls curtsying, both attempting to dance gracefully at that age when one’s limbs seldom seem to do as commanded.

One rainy, windy evening, we visit the Vienna State Opera. When this opera house first opened in 1869, the very first performance was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, watched by Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth. About 150 years later, we’re going to watch a performance of the same opera and I’m nearly delirious with excitement. That evening we make an extra effort to dress up nicely, put on makeup, and bravely head into the chilly wind. We’re shivering by the time we reach, but all is forgotten the moment we enter the multi-arched facade of the neo-Renaissance structure. It is everything I expect it to be. A grand marble staircase sweeps up from the main entrance to the first floor. I run my hand along the smooth marble balustrade, slowly climbing up as my eyes dart in every direction, taking in the gilded decorations on the walls, the vibrant painted ceiling, the intricate floor patterns. Seven marble statues representing the different liberal arts—architecture, sculpture, poetry, dance, musical art, drama, and painting—look down on me from the top of the staircase. In the Schwind Foyer, 16 oil paintings by Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind depict once-popular operas that are now rarely performed. Here elegantly dressed Viennese sip wine and champagne as they nibble on gourmet crostini. We get ourselves a glass each and I watch the dazzling lights of the two-tiered chandelier dance on the surface of my red wine.

Vienna State Opera hosts great productions like the recent Don Giovanni that draw viewers from around Europe. The best seats are often sold out months in advance. Photo: Anshika Varma

Vienna State Opera hosts great productions like the recent Don Giovanni that draw viewers from around Europe. The best seats are often sold out months in advance. Photo: Anshika Varma

A bell signals the start of the show and we settle into the plush red seats. The auditorium is magnificent, with gold and deep red decor and bright lights that dim gently as the show begins. A small display in front of my seat gives me translations, but Mozart’s music speaks masterfully, more eloquent than any words I read off a screen.

When the opera is over, I literally stagger out, overwhelmed by the opulence of the setting, the rich voices of the singers, the emotion the experience evoked. I feel I have been time travelling in different worlds: From the 14th century, when a fictional Don Juan was busy killing and feasting to 1869, when an emperor and empress sat and watched his capers performed on the same stage just like I had. As we exit the opera house, the sudden sight of a pink bunny sculpture atop the subway entrance next to the opera yanks me back into the present. Anshika finds it incongruous, a misfit next to the heritage structures of the Ringstrasse, the boulevard that circuits Vienna’s inner historic districts. It makes me think of what I find attractive about Vienna—a city that treasures its past and lets it live on, but also just when you’re lost in another time and age, sends you a cheeky reminder of the here and the now, of innovation, change, and experiment.

Do the Waltz

Elmayer Dance School is perhaps Vienna’s best known dance school. Group waltz classes in English are held every Saturday from 4-5 p.m. For this you must sign up with your own partner (elmayer.at/en; €45/₹3,354 per couple for 1 hr). You can also sign up for private lessons, in which case a partner can be provided (€62/₹4,621 per person or couple for 50 min; daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. depending on availability).

Rueff Dance School is where the waltz is said to have been invented. The school has weekday group waltz classes (www.tanzschulerueff.at; Mon-Fri, 5-6 p.m.; €50/₹3,726 per couple; if you need a dance partner let them know in advance).

The Private Dance Academy has instructors dressed in authentic ball attire leading classes in beautiful palace venues. Group classes are held twice a day at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. at Palais am Beethovenplatz (www.waltzvienna.com; €38/₹2,831 per couple for a 1-hr class).

To the Opera

To watch a show at the Vienna State Opera, check schedules and purchase tickets online (www.wienerstaatsoper.at; prices start from €11/₹825 for standing room tickets and go up to €205/₹15,380).

Ball vienna Austria

The annual Vienna State Opera Ball is the highlight of the city’s ball calendar. The opulent setting heightens the sense of being in a different era. Photo courtesy Wientourismus

Attend a Ball

Step 1 Choose a ball. Vienna’s annual ball calendar features nearly 450 balls, most of them in the months of January and February. Vienna Tourism has a helpful shortlist of the most popular ones at events.wien.info.

Step 2 Buy tickets. This can be done on the websites of the individual balls or at the venue entrance on the evening. The most popular balls sell out in advance so prior booking is a must for those. Tickets are between €130-290/₹9,687-21,610.

Step 3 Find the right clothes. Each ball has a dress code of varying formality, and will bar entry if you’re not dressed right. At most of the balls, men wear a tuxedo and women wear long ball gowns. Ball attire should be festive, so sarees are a convenient option for Indian travellers. Shops in Vienna sell ball attire in various price ranges and renting is also an option (try www.flossmann.at).

Step 4 Have the right shoes. While you can rent the clothes it is important to have shoes you’re comfortable in and have worn in earlier. Shoes should have a smooth leather sole for easy dancing.

Step 5 Get an early, light dinner on your way to the ball. Ride up to the ball in style in one of the famous Viennese horse-drawn carriages

Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Waltzing Vienna”.

Café Sacher is where the Viennese speciality Sachertorte originated. It’s a dense chocolate sponge cake layered with apricot jam. Photo: Anshika Varma

The Guide

Orientation & Getting There

Vienna is the capital of Austria and is located in the east of the country, along the River Danube. There are many flights to Vienna from major Indian cities, with halts in a Middle Eastern or European hub, depending on the airline. Air India has recently started direct flights from Delhi.


Travellers to Austria require a valid Schengen visa. Applications can be submitted in person at a VFS centre after scheduling an appointment. Visa fees are 4,440, plus a 1,540 service charge by VFS and can be paid by demand draft or in cash with a small additional service charge (57-75, depending on the city). The visa form and a list of required documents can be downloaded at vfs-austria.co.in.

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    Neha Dara is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.

  • Anshika Varma is a Delhi-based photographer whose curiosity in people and communities has led her to travel around the world. She also conducts art therapy programmes for children.

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