Strictly Ballroom

Forget hip hop, funk and techno. Stanford's biggest night is all about the waltz.

May/June 2002

Reading time min

Strictly Ballroom

Photo Glenn Matsumura

The Counsul General of Austria was watching. So were more than a thousand Stanford friends and classmates. But when Sherry Yu and An-swol Hu and 17 other student couples glided onto the polished dance floor of San Jose’s Fairmont Hotel March 1 for the opening ceremony of this year’s Viennese Ball, they looked as calm and stately as Hapsburg royals.

Yu, a senior majoring in computer science, and Hu, a senior in electrical engineering, had auditioned for this fairy-tale moment months earlier, competing with dozens of other students for the honor of dancing on the ball’s prestigious Eröffnungskomitee, or opening committee. Since November, the chosen couples had practiced their dance steps twice a week, twirling about in jeans and T-shirts under the arched windows of Roble Gym. Now, formally attired in billowing white satin gowns and crisp black tailcoats, they took their places under the Fairmont’s great chandeliers, lightly clasped their white-gloved hands, and launched into an intricate choreographed rendition of Johann Strauss the Younger’s Schatzwalzer.

By the final eins-zwei-drei, even Donald Carlton Burns, the impeccably attired Austrian consul, was impressed. “Over the years I have seen some bad waltzing,” he confessed, medals tinkling alongside his lapel. But the performers at Stanford’s annual ball are so outstanding, he remarked, that the event has become the highlight of his cultural year. “Last year was the first time my wife and I had attended,” he said, “and we were absolutely overwhelmed. I had no idea that such an event was even possible to organize outside of Vienna.”

Tuxedoes and rose boutonnieres, white gloves and careful choreography—in so many ways the Viennese Ball is a complete departure from the Farm’s usual California-casual ambience. Yet for a quarter century, Stanford students not only have kept the ball alive, they’ve created a University institution. The first ball, launched by a die-hard band of returning Stanford-in-Austria students in Toyon Lounge on January 27, 1978, attracted about 350 dancers. This year’s gala at the Fairmont drew a crowd of nearly 1,200, including many students who can’t speak a word of German and weren’t even out of preschool when the University closed its Austrian overseas study center in 1987.

“Once winter quarter starts, the Viennese Ball starts floating about the air and everybody starts thinking about it and talking about it,” says Hu, co-chair of this year’s ball and one of many enthusiastic Asian-American students who have stepped up to run the event in recent years. Senior Walter Shen, his friend and co-chair, nods. “The Viennese Ball is one of the biggest student-run events on campus, and the classiest one there is,” he says. “There aren’t too many nice romantic things that go on at Stanford, so if you have a special girl or guy, this is the big night.”

Stanford’s most elegant tradition, ironically, had its beginnings during one of the tackiest fashion eras in modern history. It was 1974—year of wide plaid lapels, earth shoes and jowly sideburns—and Hedi Thimig was in her second year as associate director of Stanford’s overseas study program on Karl Lueger Platz in central Vienna. As Thimig recalled, it was her assistant’s idea to involve Stanford students in Vienna’s Fasching (carnival) season, a Teutonic version of Mardi Gras that begins on New Year’s Eve and lasts until the Tuesday before Lent. During Fasching, hundreds of Viennese professional organizations and trade guilds sponsor glittering dress balls, sometimes as many as 19 or 20 on a single night. The groups, ranging from the formal aristocracy to journalists, bakers and pork butchers, typically start their balls at around 10 p.m. with lavish opening ceremonies, followed by champagne, pastries and dancing until dawn, when the city’s streetcars begin to roll again.

Thimig, a buoyant woman with connections in elite Viennese cultural circles, arranged for a highly regarded, elderly Viennese dance instructor named Willi Franz to come to Stanford’s overseas study center for several weeks and teach the somewhat dubious California youngsters the basics of waltz and polka. As it turned out, that was the easy part. A bigger challenge was rustling up the appropriate apparel. “Not only did these students not have black shoes, they didn’t have black socks, they didn’t have black tuxes, they didn’t have the tails, they didn’t have the shirts, they didn’t have anything,” Thimig recalled in a 1985 interview with Stanford’s Campus Report. “I remember that at the first few balls, my Austrian assistants and friends were sitting around at home more or less in the nude, because he lent his shoes to this student, she lent shoes to that student. My poor father almost went berserk because I took all his tuxedo shirts away. We had to tie the students’ bows for them and everything. Or we’d have to say, ‘You go to the hairdresser before the ball because you can’t go to the ball with hair like that.’”

Despite the aesthetic challenges, Stanford students became increasingly enchanted with the Fasching scene—precisely because it was so different from anything they had known in the United States. Mark Phillips, now a business consultant in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of several former Stanford-in-Austria students who flew to San Jose this year to participate in the ball’s 25th-anniversary celebration. A former engineering student, he fondly remembers the footprints painted on the hallway floors of the Vienna center in an effort to teach students the correct dance steps. The Fasching balls were about the only time that Phillips, ’79, MS ’81, and his Stanford classmates saw the normally staid Austrians let loose and smile. “The pace of the dancing, I think, brought out the kid in everyone,” he says. “You can fake a Viennese waltz and still have a lot of fun.”

For Anita Bravman, twirling the night away at the Fasching balls was a chance to live out her dearest childhood fantasies—even if she was wearing an evening gown borrowed from her mother. Now sitting in the counselor’s office at the Sunnyvale elementary school where she teaches second grade, Bravman, ’80, leafs through a scrapbook of photos from her overseas study days, pointing out a black-and-white picture taken at the opening ceremony of the 1977 pharmacists’ association ball in Vienna’s Imperial Palace. Her assigned escort that night was a dashing young officer in the Austrian military. “I’ve always been more of a romantic kind of person; sometimes I felt like I belonged in another century,” Bravman says. “So there I was in a formal gown, dancing to a symphony orchestra in a marble-studded palace. It was like one of those dreams where you finally get to be the fairy-tale princess.”

Most smitten of all the returning Stanford-in-Austria students was Jeff Ryan, now executive director of Morgan Stanley’s financial services office in Hong Kong. During the winter and spring of 1977, the international relations major danced the night away at five Fasching balls, including three in one five-night period. Ryan, ’79, found the whole experience so magical that he felt compelled to recreate it once he got back to California. “That was the closing era of disco dancing,” he explains, “so we weren’t sure if it would fly.” Nevertheless, he and several friends at Haus Mitteleuropa, Stanford’s then-new German studies theme house, decided to give it a try. To drum up enthusiasm, they waltzed through dorm cafeterias at dinnertime. “We all thought Jeff was crazy,” Mark Phillips recalls, “but somehow, the scheme took on a life of its own.” By the night of the first Viennese Ball, 175 couples had purchased the $7 tickets—a capacity crowd for Toyon Hall.

Buoyed by their first-year success, organizers decided to make the second Viennese Ball a more elaborate affair. Students who first learned to dance in Vienna offered free waltzing lessons in the dorms during the weeks preceding the ball, while others worked to convince local bakeries, wineries, linen suppliers and tuxedo-rental shops to donate their services. Erik Hill, ’79, negotiated with two Bay Area nurseries to borrow trees and bushes that transformed the interior of Roble Gym into a verdant Viennese garden.

The ball’s second year saw the debut of Austria Week: seven days of folk dancing exhibitions in White Plaza, a coffeehouse serving German pastries at Haus Mitt, a film festival, and even a one-act opera, all building up to the big night. “Except for the German movies, which most people couldn’t understand, all the events were fairly successful,” says Bravman, one of the first Austria Week organizers.

Although enrollment at Stanford in Austria declined significantly by the mid-1980s, and the University closed the program in 1987 in favor of building up its campus in Berlin, Austria Week continues today. And its main attraction—the ball—hasn’t skipped a beat. By the mid-1990s, the demand for tickets became so great that students began to line up two nights before they went on sale. Seeking to accommodate more partygoers, including alumni, organizers moved the event off campus in 1998, first to Hyatt Rickeys in Palo Alto and later to the Hyatt at San Francisco International Airport.

This year’s silver-anniversary ball at the Fairmont—a lavish event that included both a swing and a waltz band, commemorative wineglasses and a buffet of roast beef, Caesar salad, fruit and desserts—required the efforts of some 60 student volunteers and an $80,000 budget, largely from the Dean of Students office and an ASSU fee assessment. Tickets ran $75 per couple for students; $95 for faculty, staff and alumni. And that’s not even counting the money that students spent on cummerbunds, camisoles and corsages. Like giddy high school promgoers, Stanford students lay out big bucks each year at local florists, bridal stores and tuxedo rental shops, all in an effort to achieve that perfect Viennese Ball look. “It’s so much fun to go dress shopping and then get your petticoats and all your accessories,” explains Lily Kao, ’00, MS ’01, the neurobiology research assistant who choreographed this year’s opening ceremony along with computer science doctoral student Mike Lin, ’95. “The Viennese Ball is a big deal on this campus. It’s like the high school prom, only classier, because here people actually know how to dance.”

Kao credits much of the Viennese Ball’s enduring success to Stanford’s thriving social dance program, now in its 10th year under the direction of Richard Powers. When the popular instructor joined the dance division in 1992, he had just 40 students wanting to learn to waltz, foxtrot, swing and tango. By winter quarter of this year, that number was up to 1,000. One time, Powers, MS ’70, announced that sign-ups for dance classes would begin at 9 the next morning, only to find students lining up in front of Roble Gym at 7:30 the night before. “By midnight, the line was around the corner,” he says, “and anyone who came after 4:30 a.m. didn’t get in.” The University also has seen an explosion of dance-oriented student clubs in recent years, ranging from hip-hop and salsa groups to Decadance, a high-energy swing ensemble that performed to applause this year in the ball’s swing room.

Certainly, much of this toe-tapping can be attributed to the nationwide resurgence of swing dancing. And, of course, ballroom dancing is a great way for Stanford students to meet members of the opposite sex. Powers, who also happens to be a California deputy wedding commissioner, has officiated at the marriages of three couples who met in his classes, and he can’t even begin to count the number of romantic relationships that have blossomed on the dance floor.

Dance classes and formal events like Viennese Ball also can supply something that’s missing for many Stanford students: balance. Powers notes that about 40 percent of the students in his classes are engineering majors. “Many have had their focus on their studies since they were in grade school,” he says, “and to have a nonlinear, nonverbal, right-brained learning experience is important.” Last year’s ball chair, Alice Ganier, ’01, agrees. “People at Stanford spend so much time being busy and working for the future, but the Viennese Ball is about the here and now,” she says. “At the ball, everybody’s dressed up and everything’s slower. You can’t really rush around in high heels.”

That’s why the ball appeals even to those who can’t parse a polka. “Since I’m not into the dancing scene, I go more to spend time with my friends,” says senior Jason Cheng. “Specifically, this means dressing up, going out to a nice dinner and then seeing everyone else dressed up at the ball. I see it as a fun opportunity to go out and do something different.”

And students aren’t the only ones who feel that way. Each year, the organizing committee sends out invitations to a host of Stanford friends and dignitaries, including past ball organizers, the Austrian consul general in San Francisco, and University deans, provosts and presidents. Robin Mamlet, Stanford’s dean of admission, attended her first Viennese Ball last year and was “bowled over” by the experience, even though she was a novice at waltzing. The ball “captured the intellectual best of Stanford,” she says, incorporating “history, culture, music, pageantry, dance and sheer fun. What an incredible way to come to know the University.”

As for the original Stanford-in-Austria students, they’re just happy to know the ball has survived. Ryan, for one, finds that whenever he mentions his part in the start-up of the Viennese Ball to current students, they tell him how much they love it. “To me,” he says, “that’s better than being elected to Phi Beta Kappa.”

This year, Ryan flew all the way from Hong Kong to attend the 25th-anniversary ball. As he watched the glittering scene at the Fairmont, he was reminded of the biblical story of the mustard seed. “It started out so small,” he said in wonder, “and look at how it has grown.” Then the band started up a polka, and Ryan politely excused himself and headed to the dance floor to gallop in circles with An-swol and Sherry, the Austrian consul, and his old friends from Vienna. The evening was still young. And it’s not every night that a person can feel like royalty.

Theresa Johnston, ’83, is a Palo Alto writer and frequent contributor to Stanford.

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