All photos by Edo Chang
Vienna holds over 400 balls a year, and most of them are places of conservatism and tradition. Men and women dance the Viennese Waltz together; debutantes are presented in a tiara and diamonds to a suitor suitably reputable to marry; etiquette, dress code, and family background are paramount values; and any diversion from these somewhat archaic values would have you deemed unsuitable for ball culture. Although traditions are loosening, some of the more elite balls on Vienna's Winter Calendar are, even today, like selective breeding programs for Austria's social elite.
The unwavering commitment to tradition has meant balls in Vienna have historically excluded anything that is not strict heterosexuality. That's kind of baffling, because after attending a Waltz lesson at Elmayer – the most traditional dance school in Austria's capital – and learning about Viennese ball history, I realise these events are pretty much the gayest thing ever. It's ball gowns, fake diamonds, catered mini-food, and the ultimate in high-society glamour. The balls closely mirror the performativity in the Vogueing scenes seen in Paris is Burning, just with a shitload more cash.
At my Waltz class I asked Thomas Schafer-Elmayer (great great grandson to the dance school's original founder) whether same sex couples were allowed to dance at any of the non-gay balls. He gave me a dirty look, which I assumed meant no. Ball culture isn't subculture in Vienna: it is the heart of growing up as an upstanding member of Viennese society. If you're gay, balls are just another central feature of a culture from which you are rejected, from which you are forced to sit out.
In recent decades, a number of LGBTQIA+ friendly balls have emerged. There's the Creative Ball, the Rose Ball and the Rainbow Ball, or the Wiener Regenbogenball, the most traditional and spectacular of the three events. I'm in town for its 20th anniversary.
Arriving at the Regenbogenball, you can see what a powerful and transgressive event it is by nature of its very existence on the Viennese social calendar. Each room was filled with the most fabulous, proud members of the queer community I had seen in one place for such a long time: queens, queers, young gay boys wearing slicks of red lipstick, older lesbian couples spinning each other around across the waxed floor and making out furiously at the end of each song, the most glamorous trans women flirting over a Spritz in the corner of the bar. Unlike so many LGBTQIA+ nightlife spaces, this gathering was remarkably not centred around fucking: there was no intended seediness, or thumping house music and dim red lights. Instead there was an air of celebration, of taking an overbearing patriarchal, exclusively straight, cis-gendered structure and making its content queer.
At 9PM, the real dancing started: "Boys to the left, girls to the right," the compare bellowed over the mic. The usual gendered call to begin the opening ceremony of any ball was laughed at by the crowd, who are all privy to the fact that gender is a lie. Traditional roles of men in black and women in white dancing the Fledermaus Quadrille were shattered, with a massive array of genders and sexualities taking part in the traditional opening number. Drag queens with Sachertorte headdresses (a cake that is arguably Vienna's most famous export) danced the Waltz. Later, Vienna's other most famous export Conchita Wurst took to the stage in cute suit to sing the beloved Eurovision anthem "Rise Like a Phoenix" to an audience full of German yelps and Facebook Live videos.
The party continued until 5AM, unusual for balls which are supposed to finish at midnight, with dancing and DJs in the basement. Deborah Woodson (Google her, she's iconic) joined the lineup to bring the house down with bangers such as "It's Raining Men" and "One Moment In Time" sung in half-German-half-English.
I thought I was going to hate this ball. I usually dismiss tradition, and tend to be a critic of moneyed apolitical gays, it totally proved me wrong. In this space over 2000 people normally excluded from the ball scene came together to make their own queer, beautiful traditions which fly in the face of a society that has branded them with the brush of "failure" in the first place.