Sort of a trip: Austrian Charity Ball, Sep 98

Text by Michael Broschat, with Melissa Meier

Last night was the (now) annual Viennese Opera Ball, Washington. It’s a charity event intended to appeal to the rich folks (or their representatives), and, like its true Austrian progenitor, features waltzing. Melissa was a guest the minute she heard about this some months ago. She even worked a bit on the organizing committee.

The days before the event were a bit noticeable, even in posh Georgetown. The tuxedo rental place in our neighborhood had about 20 customers going, including the Japanese ambassador. I own a tux, but the requirement here was tails, so that’s what led us to the tux shop. The beauty salons were busy, too, and Melissa spent a couple days chasing down accessories, in the end creating a couple with glue and glitter. We didn’t advertise this last night.

Our first real notice of something different was as we ascended the stairs of our “basement” entryway onto the sidewalk. Although suits and even the odd tuxedo are not uncommon in this neighborhood (the tuxes are worn by the many musicians and hotel staff who work around here), something about us drew some quite unaccustomed attention from nearly everyone we saw as we sought out a cab (one pulled up as we thought about crossing the street, as its passenger decided we were much better dressed than he, and he’d be happy walking the remaining couple blocks to his destination). I think it was the combination of white tie and lovely female with ball gown. Everyone was sure we were famous, and just couldn’t place us. At the ball, of course, I got to sign autographs as Garrison Keillor. He’ll never know, and it makes people feel good, meeting a celebrity.

Anyway, we got there, and left the cab in search of adventure.

The event was held in a room the size of many Midwestern towns. The dance floor was pitifully small we thought, given the number of chairs arrayed at the 350 or so tables, but realized later that its size was probably determined by how much room was left from seating paying dinner guests. It was magnificently decorated, with tall flower centerpieces at each table. We introduced ourselves to our table mates. I realize now we were all pretty much the same age, plus an older person or two. We sat next to a single French woman, who proved to be a kick (works for the World Bank) and, Melissa discovered, was twice a widow. She had married much older men in her life, and though alone at the moment, looks like she has some fun yet to experience. A similar couple sat at our left (she probably a bit younger than I, and he quite a bit older). Each table had a “celebrity,” and ours was the Latvian ambassador and his wife. Very attractive, very dignified, but there seemed something odd. At a social moment, I went to their side of the table, and asked about the location of the Latvian embassy (I couldn’t very well ask about a country I’ve hardly heard of). As he explained, I caught something odd about his voice. “Have you ever _been_ to Latvia?” I asked. He had no foreign accent whatsoever, and although we’re used to great facility with English by many people here, this was a bit too much. “Actually, I was born in Chicago,” he replied, “and my wife in New York.” They were children of refugees, and rediscovered Latvia as it came out of its shell a few years ago. Pretty weird to be sitting with the Latvian ambassador and be the only two at the table who knew of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and what a great guitarist Mike Bloomfield is/was. They were both wonderful at their “job,” greeting and meeting all night long, spreading the good world about Latvia. Hey, we’ll go. Probably some great blues.

Another set of guests were a bit quieter (than Madeleine, the French woman? How could they not be), and we didn’t get to talk with them until they left (early—kids). He is some kind of bird scientist (a computer cartographer, who charts the probable habitats of birds), so we got to trade some bird watching stories. (He says there are now 147 pairs of nesting bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay area.)

They had some festivities, and introduced a famous person or two. At least one Supreme Court justice was there (Ruth Bader-Ginsberg) and one movie star (Charlton Heston)—I hope that wasn’t an indication of the prevailing political climate.

Speaking of politics, there wasn’t too much talk of the Clinton scandal. Our taxi driver had revealed to us that a woman friend had told him in great confidence that Clinton’s interest in all these women stemmed from Hillary’s disinterest in him. Perhaps, this is behind the great support he’s currently receiving from the black population. Inside, one guest and I discussed the groupie phenomenon, and she told me of a “second string” major league baseball player who’d told her of the women who regularly made themselves available to him. Madeleine, although French, thought the whole thing was disgusting, which rather surprised me, but then let it be known that she’s a Republican, so everything fell into place.

Anyway, the festivities (to which few paid any attention) went on as we socialized, and then we got in one dance before dinner arrived. Pathetic. Each couple had about 2 square feet in which to work their magic. As usual at these affairs, about a dozen of us knew you’re supposed to move around in a circle, but the seeming hundreds who just sort of rocked in each other’s arms didn’t know this (which had prompted the dance lessons of the summer at the Austrian embassy—the vast majority of “dancers” didn’t take the lessons). Patience, we told ourselves. Another dance to two, and these folks would all retire to their tables or homes, and the floor would be ours!

I forgot to mention that a part of the festivities was the “cotillion.” This is a group of young folks (the next generation, I suppose, viewed from the overwhelmingly 50-ish mass of paying guests) who do some group moves on the dance floor and have learned to waltz in the process of preparing. I think of them now, because they never disappeared from the dance floor. In fact, as 2 am rolled around, there was just them and us (slightly kidding—a number of other dance patrons were also there). This group, not long from high school if at all, seemed odd at first. Rich, they might well have been, but sophisticated? No. Still, they were really important to the success of this affair, which was really more than just a party. Melissa and others have told me how much Scandinavian dancing occurs in groups of three generations, all dancing with each other and giving a meaning to “family values” that the right-wingers can’t approach. There wasn’t much intermingling among the generations last night, but then we weren’t at a Scandinavian folk-fest. But, the presence of three generations was very much evident, and all absolutely belonged. That was, I suppose, the ‘society’ part of this event.

By the way, one other interesting thing happened that concerned the kids. After midnight, the orchestra took a break, and the MC said that in accordance with popular demand, the break would be filled with (Austrian-played) swing music. The kids practically screamed in delight. So, for the next hour, we listened and danced to the music of their grandparents. It was if this was what they’d come for. There were some great Lindy skills out there (where are they learning this stuff?), but general swing skills greatly outnumbered those for the waltz. They did all right with the several polkas, too, mainly ‘cause they’re like swinging in a straight line.

For those of you not “in the know,” modern kids are crazy about the swing music of the 30s and 40s. My finger, of course, is on the very _pulse_ of this trend. I bought a Brian Setzer album, the other day, and was amazed to be hearing several of the Louis Prima songs I remember from mid-50s records. I haven’t heard any analyses of why this phenomenon is occurring. Interestingly, the corresponding dance form requires actual steps and moves, quite in contrast to the drugged-out bopping, with or without a partner, that so characterize(d) the dancing of their parents (=us). Since the discipline required is not famous throughout the rest of their lives, one can only presume that the infamous ‘rebellion’ plays a strong part in this trend.

It was great fun, and something to remember always. Met some wonderful people, including another Australian! She and Melissa went off in search of the Hungarian ambassador, unfortunately in the company of the Aussie’s husband, who then proceeded to bore us and the poor ambassador with his views on some aspect of world politics. It was so out of place, that kind of talk among these diplomats at rest.

We took a cab back home, rather startled to see the level of activity in our neighborhood at 2 am. But, then, we’re seldom on the street at that time of night, so it probably goes on like that always. Sleep didn’t come immediately, but some dancing muscles were pleased to rest…

[Melissa’s P.S.]

I don’t know how many little girls wish they could dress up and go to balls (especially if dancing is neither practiced nor condoned in their environment), or, of those that do, how many carry this wish into adulthood; maybe I saw Cinderella at too tender an age, or maybe I was inspired by the dresses I made for my dolls to wear, but from the time I first could read in the society pages of benefits and debutantes, I dreamed of attending such events. Neither debutante nor society, I nonetheless felt no less glorious last night than a true fairy princess, even with superglue holding the rhinestones on my combs. As I watched the lovely young women in their beautiful white gowns, wearing tiny crystal crowns, I thought I could be bitter that I hadn’t been born to such a class, or I could marvel that I’d ever made it here at all. It was easy to marvel….

The press mentioned guests with chests-full of “miniature hubcaps.” When I first read the invitation, the phrase “White Tie/Decorations” stumped me. Streamers? Confetti? I had a good laugh at my own naivete an instant later, as I realized the significance of the words. It’s actually pretty funny—as someone said, when governments can’t pay you, they give you medals. I saw a Maltese Cross last night, you know, The Something-or-Other Order of the Knights of Malta.

...I could have gone on till morning (is it the music or the clothes that make dancing so much more fun than working out at the gym?); the orchestra deserted us, however, and we came home, and slept, and I at least awoke to the devastation caused by Hurricane Georgette in her preparations for the Grand Event.

Now life is back to normal, whatever that may be, and we have another wonderful memory to cherish.