Interview: Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer

January 9, 2004


Tanzschule Willy Elmayer-Vestenbrugg
Bräunerstraße 13
A-1010 Wien
Tel: +43 (0)1 512 71 97
Büro: +43 (0)1 798 68 67
Mobil: +43 (0)664 300 57 38
Fax: +43 (0)1 798 68 80

Nelson: How have balls changed over the course of the last two centuries?
Thomas: The balls have changed a lot during the last two centuries because of many new dances that have emerged. The last two centuries means back to the end of the 18th century. That was the time when the waltz emerged. Before that the waltz was prohibited. The waltz also gradually became popular at the court, and was at the same time danced with older dances like the minuet, gavotte, and all the old dances where you did not have closed body contact, which has changed due to the waltz.
Then by the turn of the next century, that means from the 19th into the 20th, we have the emergence of the dances, one after another, that we are nowadays used to dance, like, first of all, the tango. We have the big Tango competition in 1904 at Nice.  And then in 1914 the Quickstep came along. And at that time, of course, the Charleston was very strong – the 20s. One after another these dances were becoming very popular. And by the 50s of the last century, the 20th century, we have then, virtually all these dances that we are knowing today as ballroom dancing.
The British Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, together with the Germans, have developed the world dance program. That has a big advantage. More or less it is possible that people that have learned to dance in, say, Vienna, are able to dance with people who learned to dance in New York, or in London, or in Tokyo, or wherever. The system basically is the same. All dancing teachers around the world are taught to the same system, a great achievement. And that has changed a lot, of course, the ballroom scene. But this is a situation already now lasting nearly 40 or 50 years.
Over the end of the last century what has developed, of the things that I have personally experienced, was more a fine tuning so that the ball has become more elegant here in Vienna. While we are here having a boom in these ball festivities – new balls all the time, elsewhere they have more or less completely disappeared. And the tradition that originated, not really in Vienna, but from all over Europe, and especially from France, is now a tradition that we regard as typically Viennese.
So that has changed a tremendous amount. We are, in the mean time, sort of exporting this tradition to other countries where you also find that you have, from time to time, imitations of our Viennese tradition.
There are some similarities to the situation with the Viennese waltz, because the Viennese waltz is a dance that was developed in various countries. The Viennese called it the Viennese Waltz. What did evolve exclusively in Austria was the typical Viennese waltz music that went with it. That is now part of the New Years concerts. Everyone knows this special music. And that has reaffirmed this Viennese waltz situation.

Nelson: How did your family become involved so closely with the ball culture here in Vienna?

Thomas: My grandfather got the idea to start a dancing school from a book that he read about a French officer of the Napoleonic army who in 1815 had been in a similar situation as my grandfather in 1918: At the end of the First World War he had become an employee in some ministry which he didn’t like so much. It was too boring, and he wanted to be in touch with young people – teaching young people, as he did as an officer before. He read that this French officer had founded a dancing school. That gave him the idea to do the same thing.
He was never dreaming about doing this before. Then he got very much involved in the ball situation. After him, the dancing activities were continued, not by my parents, Nora and Diether Schäfer-Elmayer, who were also involved in the dancing school, but more in the etiquette, manners, and economic parts, but he was followed by his assistant Robert Hysek, who became director of our school in 1967.  The three together were keeping up this strong tradition, and so did I, taking over from them.
What has been the development that we have concentrated so much on is our core business: teaching teenagers dance and manners. We are at this moment in time practically the only dancing school in Vienna that is able to furnish large balls, like the Opera ball, or the balls at the Hofburg, with enough debutante couples (up to 160 couples). The other dancing schools…what they are often doing… they train a group of people. And this group virtually goes from one ball to another. But we are training a new opening committee for every individual ball. That is because fortunately we have enough people to do this [instructors and expertise] and enough young people, enough customers, who are longing to participate in the balls.
That is basically how we are involved. For me the Viennese traditional ball festivities are very important, including our own ball at the Hofburg, the Elmayer-Kränzchen, which is virtually our own presentation of what we can do, and what we can provide for all the other balls. This is the only ball that starts already at 06:00 PM and closes together with the entire ball season at midnight on the last Tuesday in “Fasching”.

Nelson: When did you first start teaching?

Thomas: I came to Vienna in the end of 1987. At that time I did not even have in mind to become a dancing teacher, because I thought that I would do it the same way as my parents had done. I’m a different person, though. I felt that I needed to get really involved in the whole thing. So at that late stage in my life I started to become a dancing teacher. For several years I had to study and pass exams in all the social dances and other related subjects.
Nelson: Can I ask what you were doing before that?
Thomas: I was before that a manager in international industry, in Switzerland, in Africa, and then in Germany. The last post that I had was a manager of a high-purity metals division in a large metal company in Germany. These experiences are now very valuable for the participants of my nearly 100 seminars and personnel trainings per year in “International Business Etiquette” that I am conducting for the employees of many companies in all of the various business fields.

Nelson: The Viennese waltz has a reputation in the ballroom dance community for being difficult. Do you feel that it deserves this reputation? Are you familiar with that?

Thomas: The Viennese waltz?
Nelson: In the United States if you go to typical ballroom dance social events they don’t play very many Viennese waltzes, and when they do, very few people get up and dance. I have been to a few classes at various schools where the students don’t come out really being able to dance the Viennese waltz. Do you think that it is inherently a difficult dance?
Thomas: To the contrary. It is very, very easy to learn.
Nelson: What do you think is the key to teaching people to learn the Viennese waltz?
Thomas: The key, the know-how transfer, is extremely easy. All you need to do is to repeat six steps, time and again. There are no difficult figures or anything to learn.
Nelson: So it’s practice?
Thomas: It’s just practice. And that you can practice on your own. You don’t even need a partner for that. You just do the steps a little bit faster and faster and faster.
And in the beginning you may become dizzy from time to time, but a quick turn to the other direction, and it’s gone. It’s really an extremely easy dance.
Nelson: I tell people that if they get dizzy, that’s good news, because they are actually learning the steps.
Thomas: Yes, but as long as you stay together, nothing can really happen. It is only a little bit dangerous if you walk away from the partner. Sometimes you don’t realize that you are, and this can be a problem.

Nelson: What do you feel are the key essential ingredients to a successful Viennese ball?
Thomas: I think the key ingredient is the opening ceremony. That is really very important because it creates the atmosphere into which the guests are brought. What I always tell my young people is that your expression in your face, that is much more important than correct steps. Because that is really what is influencing the atmosphere.
And of course, the entire appearance must be correct.
Then the next thing, the typically Viennese ball is not so much a show, but every guest must be aware that he is a participant of the whole thing. Somebody who walks home and says that this was very boring tonight … it’s his own fault. Because a Viennese ball is not a show. You are there…the actor. Everybody is involved and should also take care that it becomes a very nice evening. Everybody is responsible together.
Then what is an ingredient, also, in my experience, is Viennese people, because I have experienced many balls outside of Vienna…Tokyo, Montreal, and other cities. Of course, the people there enjoy it also very much, but it’s different. Because they are the participant, and it always is the participant of the ball, the guest of the ball, that makes the ball.
Therefore, it depends very much on the people that are there. And that also makes a big different between a ball like the Viennese Opera Ball and, for example, a ball like the Philharmonic Ball. At the Philharmonic Ball I know perhaps every tenth person who is there. At the Opera Ball I know very few people. Many, many people come from abroad. Both are very nice. Both have their own atmosphere, but a typically Viennese ball is depending on the margin of Viennese people who participate.

Nelson: What is the process by which you choreograph the opening of a Viennese ball?

Thomas: First, we have to make a selection of people who are actually able to dance the Viennese waltz to the left. There is a test. Every couple has to perform, sometimes five together, or each individual, and then we tell them that they can participate, or, they can not participate, or they still have something to do to improve. And then they can participate, which is most of the time. That is what we are doing. Then they can take lessons, what ever they want. We then have a second test, for those people, usually at the first rehearsal.
Then we have four to five rehearsals for each ball. And at these rehearsals we are always going through the entire opening ceremony. But we first have to teach them the actual new dance because every year it is a different dance that we choreograph for one particular piece of the opening ceremony. But the other things are more or less similar.
You have one or two Polonaises at the beginning, which they have to dance, and then comes the special dance, whatever it is, and then comes the opening waltz. The opening waltz only lasts for half or one minute maximum, but it’s very important that that is a very good waltz and very well performed, because it’s not so easy to dance it in such a crowd of young people, and keep your track around the room, that it looks nice. That is why we are putting such great emphasis on the Viennese waltz.
Nelson: As far as the selection of the Polonaise before the waltz, you have been doing this for many years, and your family has been doing this for dozens of years. Is it a process of inventing something new every year, or do you borrow things from 20 years ago and then modify them?
Thomas: The strategies are quite different. I am at the moment in the very lucky situation that several of my team are very keen to create new choreographies. And so we have a selection where we can choose the best. And that is then going to be applied to a certain ball. But we also try to look that we are using music of musicians that have a special year. For example, this year is the birth year of Johann Strauss the father. So many of the ball opening ceremonies, not all of them, but many of them will be primarily music of Johann Strauss the father, like the Redetzky march. That is basically what we are doing.

Nelson: How much time and effort is required to train for the opening ceremony.

Thomas: About 2 hours for each rehearsal, or ten hours altogether, approximately.

Nelson: How do you feel about the issue of adequate floor space at balls? I don’t know any way to solve that problem, short of making prices very expensive, and then fewer people come, so that people can dance from 9pm onwards?

Thomas: On the other hand, the most expensive ball in Vienna, the Opera Ball, is just the one where you have absolutely no space at all. It is not a guarantee to raise your prices that fewer people are going to come. In fact, this is sometimes attracting people to a ball, psychologically.
Nelson: So limiting the number of tickets that you sell?
Thomas: Yes, you could limit the number of tickets, but the really funny thing is that the Viennese love this type of situation. For example, last year’s Philharmonic ball, I’ll go through the main hall shortly before midnight, and I had my table at the adjacent Brahms Hall. It took me fifteen minutes to get from A to B, which was perhaps 20 meters, or something like that. And then the people dancing the quadrille there, I still do not know how they were able to do that. Because it was so crowded. You could hardly move from one side to the other.
Nelson: I was there. I remember.
Thomas: And they loved that. The Viennese…the more crowded it is, the more they love it.
And we have the same experience every time that they are here [at the Elmayer School], too. We have these possibilities just to dance every Sunday night for the young people. If they come and look in, and there are only five couples dancing then they go away, but if it is crowded then they want to join in.

Nelson: What do you enjoy the most about your work?

Thomas: The pride and thrill of being part of the opening ceremony. It is a great privilege to be allowed to be part of one of our great traditions and have a key function in these splendid performances in the most elegant society and the most spectacular sites of our own. There is always the concern that the dancers will make mistakes! I always try to sound confident.

Nelson: Is Vienna a uniquely romantic city? Does it live up to its reputation?
Thomas: Yes, it is very unique, although in some ways it is like New York. Just as New York is very different from the rest of the United States, Vienna is very different from other areas in Austria.

Vienna has both strong traditions and also dynamism in culture as well as business. There are new creations happening all the time. There is also a great deal of variety, ranging from discos (which are fine) to balls, and every ball has its own unique character.
There have been dramatic improvements in Vienna since when I left in the 1960s. One of the most elegant areas today was at that time a red-light district.  Vienna was also almost surrounded by the Iron curtain. Some of these subsequent changes have been the positive result of international organizations that moved into Vienna and of tourism that helped open Vienna more to the world and that provided much of the motivation and funds to renovate our city’s rich historical heritage.
Today, however, tourism is a mixed blessing. In the summer it can be rather crowded!

Nelson: Thank you.