You shall go to the ball

The Viennese have a way of dealing with the dog-days of winter: they waltz. From New Year's Eve through to April, the entire city falls under the giddying spell of three-four time. Every town hall and function room, every concert hall and opera house, even the Hofburg Palace where the Habsburgs reigned - everywhere, in fact, that can field a level stretch of parquet - finds itself requisitioned by a frantic social season that lists more than 300 balls.

Most prestigious of these (which are depicted in these photographs) are the Philharmoniker Ball (organised by the orchestra), the Hofburg Redoute, the Hunter's Ball, the Rudolfina Redoute and, grandest of all, the Opera Ball, at which the Duchess of York conspicuously appeared earlier this month as guest of a flamboyant Austrian businessman. Yet, going to a ball isn't just a pastime for the social elite. Every imaginable trade in the city celebrates the season with its own dances: police balls, factory balls, postmen's balls, confectioners' balls, gardeners' balls ...

Although young people protest each year outside the Opera Ball at the price of tickets (from pounds 250 to go in; pounds 5,000 for a table), every year 7,000 Viennese buy them, and crowds gather in the streets to watch them arrive in their finery. Full evening dress is de rigueur: tails for the men, and for women a traditional dirndl, with velvet apron and satin sash. Girls making their first appearance wear a ball dress of virginal white.

Some balls make a feature of anonymity, with all females disguised in half-masks, which grants them the temporary right of Damen Wahl, or Ladies' Choice: they may request a dance from any man they choose. At the stroke of midnight, Cinderella-like, they must unmask and revert to their original partner.

Learning to waltz is part of growing up in the city of Johann Strauss II, the composer who ushered in the golden age of waltzing in the 1840s. Though not compulsory, most 15- and 16-year-olds, boys and girls, take dancing classes either at school or in chi-chi private dancing academies. In recent years attendance has risen sharply, with a particular demand for classes in the waltz. Amiel Brix, director of the Austrian Cultural Institute in London, believes this is a direct consequence of a widespread cultural change. "Austrians are returning to family and civic values. They're becoming what we call more burgerlich."

How curious, then, that the very dance now seen as promoting wholesome values was once denounced as an invention of the devil. Derived from a country dance in the mid-18th century, the waltz was unique among social dances for the degree of body-contact between partners. In other dances couples merely touched hands. The erotic character of the waltz was described thus in 1804: "The dancers grasped the long dress of their partners ... and lifted it high, holding them in this cloak which brought both bodies under one cover ... and in this way the whirling continued in the most indecent positions ... the girls went wild and looked as if they would drop."

All the smartest balls open with a fanfare at 10.30pm, as the official guests enter. Then, while the orchestra plays a polonaise, 200 young couples enter in procession and present themselves with a bow or curtsey. There is fierce competition (among debutantes, and especially among their mothers) to be included in this opening ceremony. Couples are chosen for their dancing prowess by a panel of judges and their precisely choreographed unison in sharp black and dreamy white is rehearsed beforehand. Once the elite 200 have completed the first waltz, the cry goes up: "Alles waltzen!" The ball has begun. !