Redoute, A 1790s Viennese Ball Back

On a wet and miserable Monday evening I made my way to the Great Hall at King’s College London for a Viennese ball workshop. Part of the annual PLAY Arts and Humanities Festival at King’s, it was advertised as an opportunity to ‘party like it’s 1792” – how could I resist! The Redoute Viennese Ball began in the late-eighteenth century when the Emperor Joseph II opened up the dance halls in the Redoute Rooms of the Hofburg Palace to the public. From the 1760s onwards the costume and masquerade balls previously enjoyed by the nobility were now open to those who could afford the price of a ticket. Immensely popular and laden with ceremony and custom, the Viennese ball was an occasion for flirtation, courtship and, of course, dancing.

The order of the evening was to learn two dances, the minuet and the Austrian landler, and then to perform them together as if at an eighteenth-century ball. Leading us through the workshop was Mary Collins, our dancing master, with music composed by Haydn, provided by a small ensemble directed by Joseph Fort. I had brought along a friend to be my partner, lest I had to get too close to a stranger. In total the group made up around forty participants. To get us started and ease the nervous giggles, we began in a large circle for a simple communal country-dance. This entailed holding hands and stepping for six beats around the room while Mary led the line of people through a variety of spatial patterns across the floor. I imagined this dance originally required some level of elegant movement and good posture but we spent most of the time trying not to bump into each other. Nonetheless, it did the trick, the embarrassed laughs quickly gave way to wide smiles and the promise of a fun evening ahead.

Up next was the minuet, a baroque-style dance that originated at the court of Louis XIV. It has a distinctly gentle rise-and-fall movement and is undertaken while holding your partner’s hand and facing outwards towards the other dancers. Mary, an expert in early dancing and baroque music, was an excellent teacher. Witty, charming, knowledgeable and graceful, she led us around the room, firstly demonstrating and then encouraging us to follow. As soon as we had mastered the basics, we were introduced to more steps and associated hand movements; it quickly became complex.

After the minuet, we moved on to the landler, also known as the waltz. Thomas Wilson, an early nineteenth-century dance master who published collections of dance instructions, including A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing in 1822, illustrated nine versions of the waltz that could be danced in succession. The landler, number seven on Wilson’s list, was a distinct move away from the group country-dance. The waltz encouraged couples to be in close physical proximity to each other and to turn away from the room. Therefore, a young gentleman could hold a lady’s hand or place his arm around her waist, a move that was both highly erotic and heavily criticized. Furthermore, this dance provided the opportunity for courting couples to converse as they faced inwards towards each other and raised and entwined their arms to promenade around the floor in the cape position. My partner and I found the landler to be particularly complicated; our attempts at conversation were limited to ‘my apologies’ as we trod on each other’s toes.

As my fellow dancers and I pulled together all that Mary had taught us for the final performance, our lack of coordination and timing were visible. Remembering the rise and fall of each step, continually counting the beats, keeping time with my partner and the rest of the room, it was much more rigorous than anticipated. I thought of the many Jane Austen novels that describe the ball as lasting all night and how her characters are often admired for their vigour. In Sense and Sensibility, John Willoughby was congratulated for dancing ‘from eight o’clock till four’, and similarly Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice ‘danced every dance’ of the assembly ball. Given that each dance lasted between twenty and thirty minutes, together with the heat from the candlelight and the weight and restriction of the costumes, the ball was both pleasurable and physically demanding. I suspect that if Thomas Wilson had been observing us from the corner of the hall, he would have greatly approved of our teacher but shaken his head in despair at our lack of stamina, grace and decorum.

Yet, by the end of the evening, loud unashamed laughing could be heard across the hall as we thoroughly entered into the spirit of it. My only disappointment was that we were not more of a crowd and in full Georgian dress. Perhaps tight corsets and sleeves, full skirts, lace ruffles and collars may have encouraged a more elegant and accomplished performance or at least assisted with the conventions of ballroom etiquette. In short, Redoute, a 1790s Viennese Ball was a lively and entertaining introduction to baroque music and dance and a highly enjoyable way to spend a Monday evening.

Redoute, a 1790s Viennese Ball took place at King’s College London on 17th October 2016.