Sweaty palms and bumper cars on a Viennese dance floor

The evening was dark and murky, and snow was falling like pale confetti. Inside, light dripped from crystal chandeliers onto women's necklaces and sequined jackets. Patent-leather shoes gleamed against marble floors. The swish of long gowns could just be heard over the orchestra tuning up.

Throughout Vienna, festive dances like this brighten the Carnival Ball season from New Year's Eve until Lent. The Viennese, who seem born to waltz, approach these formal events with aplomb. In fact, they send daughters and sons to dancing schools to learn the necessary steps and etiquette. But to Americans, whose passing knowledge of ball culture comes from Cinderella, such affairs can be exercises in awkwardness.

I know. This month I attended my first such event, the Lawyers' Ball at the Hofburg Palace. Despite a short waltz lesson at Vienna's best-known dance school, Elmayer, I felt unprepared. My palms were hot and sweaty. I had a sinking sensation of imminent social disaster. I would be the clumsy American tripping over people who had waltzed all their lives.

That wasn't the case. As the music began, and I flattened myself into a chair hoping to be invisible, a debonair Viennese man in black tie asked me to dance. I swallowed hard. He led me into the glittering ballroom, which was so tightly packed that hardly an inch of parquet could be seen. The orchestra struck up a waltz, and we were off!

My partner was a fine dancer, but, to my relief, it didn't matter. The two of us were part of a moving horde and such niceties as footwork were beside the point.

The cardinal rule in waltz: Keep moving. Stop, and you'll be trampled. My partner valiantly steered through the whirling thicket of elegantly clad bodies, occasionally taking hits as we collided with other dancers. This wasn't Fred and Ginger, it was bumper cars.

We danced two more waltzes before the orchestra switched to a tango, and I fled, palms still sweaty, back to our table. I spent the rest of the evening admiring the couples promenading past. As the clock struck midnight, I gathered up my dancing slippers and took a taxi back to the hotel, kicking myself for not having danced more.

I envisioned myself waltzing serenely, head high, with thousands of tiny lights flickering in the background. Next time, however, I'm taking along a pair of gloves.

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