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Brushing stardust off my sleeve

YES, we waltzed the night away at the Vienna Opera Ball of 1988, but a Vienna of the past and of the streets outside kept trying to cut in. Perhaps you heard reports of 2,000 police arrayed to control 3,000 demonstrators acting in behalf of Austria's unemployed and against this opulent social event of the year. We in our insulated grandeur saw not a sign of them. Perhaps you heard that King Hussein of Jordan came to Austria as a guest of President Kurt Waldheim but then pleaded the suffering of Palestinians as a reason for finally staying away from the presidentially sponsored ball. We, packed among the 7,000 who did not stay away, could look up and see Dr. Waldheim and his party in the presidential box just as if he were not the center of controversy over the latest study of his World War II military record. Now is when you would get an account of the ramifications of these events if I had been working as a reporter during the week in which the February ball took place. But I was on vacation, dashing from museum to theater to waltzing lessons, and so my impressions are more like tales from the Vienna woods.

Meet the young woman in jeans who took us through Vienna's massive exhibition of art from its 19th-century ``Biedermeier'' age. She almost sounded like one of the anti-ball demonstrators protesting neglect of the poor. She kept noting that the idealized domestic scenes and the extravagant parties of the time were accompanied by a repressive government, by unpictured poverty, hypocrisy, and censorship. Did she know that her audience was composed of ballgoers? The difference between the Biedermeier days and now, she said, is that ``we can say anything now, but nobody reacts.'' Was anyone in 1988 reacting to the anti-ball sentiments? At the ball we happened to meet a government cultural official as we were trying to decide whether to buy a tiny but delicious-looking canap'e for $7. We were all pressed against a bar set up in the Opera House's backstage area, where vast scenes of bygone productions adorned the walls. He knew about the protests. He said that the ball was for a good cause, to help elderly pensioners from the opera company. In the midst of the heavily subsidized opera season it was one event that turned a profit, he said. (I wondered if the ball's casinos would have made our young Biedermeier guide question profits made through means like gambling.) The official himself was also a businessman and a sponsor of another ball for a good cause. It had maintained its standards, he said. ``Here you see quite a mixture,'' he added.

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We were part of the mixture. Were we back with Biedermeier again? The Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 was called the ``dancing Congress,'' because of all the festivities it dedicated to the cause of achieving peace. Here we ballgoers were supporting a worthy cause in the midst of a scene that might have come from accounts of those past festivities, with their thousands of guests, gorgeous clothes, lilting music, endless food and drink. Did you catch a shot of me waltzing? I had a feeling someone was taking my picture besides the entrepreneurs who were asking $80 to send home a photographic memento of our being there. I was the one in white tie and hand-me-down tails. But you could have missed me in what may be the world's most elegant mob scene.

After a chilly wait until the doors opened, we were swept on a glittering tide into the marbled splendor of the Opera House. Banks of flowers everywhere. Acres of bare shoulders. Tiaras glinted. Men's decorations gleamed, and I wished I had brought my Marine Corps sharpshooter's medal. I loved my wife in the red vintage ball gown she had borrowed back from our daughter. But it was hard not to stare also at the range of European fashion, from sheath to puff to sequins all over. A number of women had sparkling bits of something in their hair. Long before the end of the evening (which was stipulated as 5 a.m.), I was brushing somebody's stardust off my sleeve. Petal-like chandeliers hung near the waltz orchestra in one balcony. At the other end of the hall a pop/rock/swing band took over whenever the waltzing paused. There were other bands, other rooms, with a spectrum of sounds and sweetmeats that could have been in the Biedermeier exhibition. Our hard-to-get tickets covered the entrance fee and out-of-the-way tables.

We quickly learned that further credentials were needed to sit in the boxes and balconies from which the opening ballet, promenade, and other festivities could be seen. These took place on a ballroom floor that had been laid over the orchestra seats so it became a vast extension of the stage. By the time we found out we couldn't go upstairs, it was too late to get standing room on the edges of the floor except behind about four rows of people as if on a parade route.

Occasionally I saw a dancer's smiling face go by between the heads of those standing in front of us. We were at least on the right level when the announcement came inviting everyone to dance. And we were hardly trampled at all. The waltz lessons helped, particularly in confirming the direction of turning. Those Viennese tempos get rather fast, and it might be calamitous if democracy prevailed. The man always starts on the right foot, said the chic instructor. One man in our group tried to convince her that in America the man always starts on the left foot. In Vienna we started on the right foot. She let us warm up on slower tunes like ``Moon River'' and ``Charmaine'' before swirling along the Danube. The Tanzschule had a mirrored wall, which was a rather sobering experience for people who thought they had been waltzing for several decades. But there was no mirror on the Opera House wall, and we, you might say, had a ball.

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