Ball in the Vienna City Hall, elegant young ladies

Since the end of the 18th century, the glamorous Viennese balls were directly related to the worldwide spread of the Viennese waltz. In the capital of Austria, the tradition of these dance events is kept alive to this day, the most famous of which is probably the Vienna Opera Ball. In the meantime, not only rock 'n' roll or salsa have been part of the ballroom dances, but since 2017 also the Argentine tango. What similarities does a Viennese ball have in common with an event for tango in Buenos Aires?

Based on an original article by S. Elefante, MV Arenillas, S. Jovicic and M. Elefante

Time travel to the past and back

Did a ball tradition develop in Buenos Aires in the course of the 19th century that is similar to that in Vienna? We embark on a journey into the past to discover similarities and differences between these historical events and to combine them with the typical dance events for Tango Argentino, the milongas in Buenos Aires, to compare - then as now.

Festive ball in the Vienna Hofburg
Festive ball in the Vienna Hofburg

Historical sources show that elegant ball nights were organized not only in the capital, Buenos Aires, but also in other parts of Argentina as early as the 19th century. We find references to this, for example, in the text of the Tango Vals "Vals del 18" written by Horacio Ferrer and Astor Piazzolla in 1981. 

This piece of music is reminiscent of times gone by, more precisely to the year 1918. Text author Horacio Ferrer remembers his aunt with fondness, who attended these events at the time and had the opportunity to dance to various rhythms such as waltz, foxtrot and tango.

"Vals del 18"

Text: Horacio Ferrer, music: Astor Piazzolla

Turn your waltz of the eighteen
I wrote it with love to your nostalgia.

When you lit up the life
of the time that was better
all dressed brightly,
fringed up to the blush.
Turn your waltz,
I will wear a tailcoat, please!
Let us both dance.

Your heart combed à la Garçon
and your modesty wears a corset.
And your beauty a poet
takes her by the waist:
the sweet thief
who tied you to his life,
the one who is no more.
Turn your waltz,
turn that turns and its sound
you wear spats,
as well take snuff.
Joy shines in your eyes
from when peace was signed,
and with a full cardboard and lottery,
you dance foxtrot and you sing it.

 (Excerpts from the original text, translated from Spanish)

Big balls in Vienna and Buenos Aires

With this text by Horacio Ferrer as inspiration and based on historical documents, we are reviving the balls in Buenos Aires. They took place in the Argentine metropolis as early as XNUMX, as the announcement of a ball in the opera shows. Apparently, such dance events were still popular in the XNUMXs, as we can see from the text of Ferrer's “Vals del XNUMX”.

We compare these events not only with the traditional balls in Vienna, but also with the milongas of different eras.

After the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Austrian capital became known for its magnificent dance balls. More than four hundred balls take place here every year, often in the city's historic buildings, for example in the Hofburg or the Vienna State Opera. The Vienna Opera Ball is world famous, and the Vienna Philharmonic Ball is particularly exclusive. 

Although the Viennese balls are offered all year round these days, the start of the traditional ball season coincides with the start of the carnival on November 11th. The Vienna ball season ends with Shrove Tuesday in February.

The Vienna State Opera
The Vienna State Opera

What role does the carnival play? 

Undoubtedly, the dance events also took place in Buenos Aires during the carnival season. An advertisement for the ball in the opera from 1877 shows the dates “January 20th and 21st”.

A poster from the XNUMXs announced six big balls (“XNUMX grandes bailes”) that took place during Carnival in the Teatro Colón in Rosario de Santa Fe. Among other things, the Tango orchestras Firpo and Canaro were announced. This shows that big ball nights were organized not only in the Argentine capital, but also in other cities in the country.

In the 30s, dance festivals in the “Broadway Theater” on Calle Corrientes in Buenos Aires were announced as masked balls. This suggests that these events also took place during Carnival time.

An advertisement from the 40s explicitly advertises a carnival ball in “Luna Park” in Buenos Aires, which was used for concerts and sporting events, but also as a dance hall. As is well known, many large dance events were held here in the 50s. 

Announcing an event with the Tango orchestra of Aníbal Troiloshows that in 1963 the Argentine capital still had ball season during carnival time.

Aside from that, however, there is no evidence as to whether these events in Argentina occurred only during Carnival time or regularly throughout the year. We also don't know for sure whether a ball tradition existed before 1877. 

Ball night in Luna Park Buenos Aires
Ball night in Luna Park Buenos Aires, 40s

Where did the Tango Argentino originate?

On the other hand, the origins of the Argentine tango and milongas can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century in the region of the Río de la Plata, especially in the city triangle of Buenos Aires, Rosario and Montevideo / Uruguay.

The Tango Argentino spread rapidly in Europe and reached the European capitals in the first decade of the 20th century. Vienna experienced a rapid increase in events that cultivated this new dance style. Whether in the simple dance hall or in the baroque ballroom - the sounds of the new rhythm could be heard everywhere. To this day there are regular and numerous milongas in Buenos Aires as well as in the waltz city.

The ballrooms: Hofburg, Vienna State Opera and Teatro Colón

In the Vienna ball season in particular, balls are still regarded as outstanding events and are therefore usually held in the most beautiful historical buildings. The events that are held in the Hofburg and City Hall are very prestigious. More than a thousand guests attend such a ball and dance there until the early hours of the morning. The highlight of the ball season is of course the famous Vienna Opera Ball.

TU Ball in the Vienna Hofburg, opening all in white
TU Ball in the Vienna Hofburg, opening all in white

The festive ambience of the Viennese dance events seems to have parallels to those in Buenos Aires. The text of the "Vals del 18" shows that men had the option of wearing tailcoats. Based on the clothing, one can assume that the ball nights in Buenos Aires were also organized in elegant ballrooms.

This impression is evidenced by documents that the dance festivals of the Argentine capital both in the splendid Opera house, the Teatro Colón, as well as in the prestigious theaters of Calle Corrientes.

Milongas in Buenos Aires: Tango for everyone

In contrast, the typical dance events of Argentine tango, the milongas, could be found in places accessible to everyone. To this day, milongas are organized in everyday locations such as dance schools, cafes or restaurants. They only take place on certain occasions, for example during a tango festival, in special venues such as historical ballrooms. 

What social origins do ball guests and milonga visitors have?

In the capital of Austria, the guests at a ball were typically connected to one another because they belonged to a common professional group. As a result, they often came from the same social class. From the early 19th century onwards, various professional groups celebrated their respective activities by organizing dance festivals, for example the confectioner's ball or the coffee maker ball. This tradition has been preserved to this day. In the meantime, not only professional groups hold dance balls, but also groups of people who share a common private interest.

In addition, young women from the highest social classes, the debutantes, traditionally dressed in white, were introduced into society at these events. Nowadays this custom is only practiced to a limited extent.

In Buenos Aires, however, nothing indicates that the dance festivals were related to professional groups. Nor is it known whether debutantes appeared at a ball to be introduced to society.

Modern Milonga In Buenos Aires, Salon Canning
Modern milonga in Buenos Aires, salon canning

The city's milongas also have no connection with any particular professional group. These are events with the primary purpose of dancing Argentine tango, Vals criollo and milonga (here: music style). In earlier times, the milongas in Buenos Aires served immigrants not only for fun, but also as a meeting place for potential spouses. Up to the present day, milongas have retained the popular character of simple dance events, regardless of the celebration of a particular event.

Musical styles of the Viennese balls

The balls in Vienna can also be seen as an appreciation of the art forms of music and dance in general. With this in mind, the range of traditional ballroom dances has been expanded over the years to include newer dance styles. Nowadays you can find orchestras and DJs who play a wide variety of music styles from the Viennese waltz to foxtrot, from swing to salsa to bachata, in order to satisfy the musical tastes of all ball guests. A quadrille is often offered as a midnight break.

Although the Argentine tango was widespread in the Austrian capital in the 20s, there is no evidence that a milonga took place as part of one of the big ball nights.

On the other hand, there is evidence that the Argentine tango was explicitly excluded from the 1914rd Vienna City Ball at a meeting of the dance committee in 23. It was considered too "disreputable". This judgment was maintained for a long time until - since the beginning of the 21st century - tango performances were sporadically seen again at some balls.

Video: Professional show Chiara Greco and Martin Acosta in the Vienna Hofburg

Since 2017: Tango Argentino in the Viennese ball program

For the first time in 2017, the Argentine tango was represented with a milonga at the Ball of the Technical University of Vienna in the Hofburg. Thanks to the great response from the guests, this was continued in 2018, 2019 and 2020.  

In 2018 the Concordia Ballin the town hall continued this development with a theme evening for the Argentine tango. Since 2019 also the Wiener Science Ball is offering a room explicitly intended for the Argentine tango.

Styles of music at the Buenos Aires balls 

Various musical styles have also been included in the ball program in the Argentine capital. This is what Horacio Ferrer writes in the text of the “Vals del 18”: "Turn your waltz" and "You dance foxtrot and you sing it".

On the occasion of the ball nights in the opera house in 1877, a variety of rhythms were danced to: polka, habanera, mazurka, waltz, quadrille, etc. The poster shows that Argentine tango was represented as well as foxtrot, rumba and vals. However, it is not clear whether on this occasion the Wiener walzer or the Vals criollo was played.

However, it seems reasonable to assume that the Lomuto orchestra played Argentine tango, milonga and Vals criollo, while the Ivan Weishaus Orchestra performed Viennese waltz. At the announced ball people danced to tango, jazz and swing, while at another ball the tango was accompanied by Hawaiian serenades alongside jazz.

On the occasion of a “Spanish” dance event, half Argentine tango and half Paso Doble appear to have been played. However, there were also dance balls, similar to the milongas, to which the tango orchestras Firpoand Canaro were invited. Understandably, you only heard Argentine tango, Vals criollo and milonga at these.

Also in the advertisement for a ball of the “Cine Argentino” there are indications that only Argentine tango was on the program, since on the poster just the Tango Orchestras Zerrillo and Brujos were announced.

Music at the milongas in Buenos Aires 

In terms of cultural history, the milongas in Buenos Aires were places where people danced to different styles of music. Although the tango rhythm undoubtedly dominated, you could always dance to other rhythms. In the past these included, for example, jazz, Caribbean dances, rock 'n' roll and Argentinian folklore. According to Eduardo Arquimbau, one of the most important tango dancers and teachers of the last century, the proportion of other musical styles reached up to 50 percent at the milongas of the 50s.

In the suburbs of Buenos Aires and inland there are still milongas with a large percentage of other styles of music. Internationally, on the other hand, the example of some downtown milongas in Buenos Aires has established itself, to which only to Argentine tango, Vals criollo and milonga is danced.

The invitation - by dance card or cabeceo? 

In the past the ladies could use a Dance card - Carnet de bal - at a ball in Vienna as well as in Buenos Aires. It was a small booklet in which the various dances of the evening were listed. The respective partner for the dance could register there. In Vienna this custom is no longer common and the gentleman asks the lady to dance with a polite question.

Video: Tango dance by students, TU Wien ball in the Hofburg

At the events for tango in Buenos Aires, however, it is tradition that the gentleman asks the lady to dance through the Cabeceo - a slight movement of the head. If the lady agrees, she confirms the request with a nod, the dancer comes up to her and they begin to dance. At milongas it is not customary to ask a lady when she is accompanied, unless she indicates that she does not want to dance with her partner only.

Therefore, men and women usually sit opposite each other in traditional milongas to facilitate the dance request by the cabeceo. Couples who want to spend the evening together, on the other hand, take a seat at tables on the third side of the dance floor.

However, this type of dance prompt seems relatively modern. Old images show that around 1900 the gentlemen were standing in the middle of the hall and calling on the ladies from there. The young dancers stood along the walls of the hall, their mothers and older sisters sat.

Nowadays you can also find milongas where this traditional type of dance invitation is no longer observed. It even happens that a a female dancer takes the initiative and challenges a male dancer. The roles of men and women in Argentine tango are no longer rigid, but interchangeable. It is not uncommon to see women taking on the role of leaders and vice versa.

The dance clothes 

In Vienna, a strict dress code is part of the long ball tradition that is respected by guests. The respective ball committee reserves the right to deny entry to visitors if they wear unsuitable clothing. For the most elegant balls such as the opera ball, women are asked to wear an evening dress that is at least ankle-length, with the model and color at the discretion of the dancer. Men, on the other hand, must wear a tailcoat or a tuxedo.

Dresscode evening dress und tuxedo Vienna City Hall
Dress code: evening dress and tuxedo in the Vienna City Hall, Science Ball 2020

There are no sources as to whether ball guests in Buenos Aires had to adhere to a set dress code. However, we can assume that the clothes were elegant according to the occasion. As an indication that the dancers were stylishly dressed, we use Ferrer's Vals text, which speaks of gaiters, tailcoats and glamorous clothing of women.

At the beginning and middle of the last century it was common for the guests of milongas in Buenos Aires to wear more elegant clothes. However, there was no dress code stating that women had to wear a long dress. The reason for this may have been, among other things, that typical step sequences of the Argentine tango, such as boleos and sacadas, could continue to be danced.

However, the dance attire also depended on the general context with regard to milongas. It was common for the gentleman to wear a tailcoat or tuxedo at a major event, at least until the 1930s. At an everyday milonga, the dress code was less formal. The gentlemen wore a jacket and a shirt, which was quite casual at the time.

The today's milongas do not prescribe a specific dress code. The Dance fashion can vary from elegant to casual and sometimes also depends on the specifications of the organizer. More festive dance attire is often expected at tango festivals, while casual attire is acceptable in weekly milongas. Who appropriate fashion or dancing shoes seeks, finds a number of proven designers who specialize in tango.

Alagalomi Gold Dress Red Shoes
Gold dress and red shoes by Alagalomi, model: Natasha Lewinger

The closing ceremony: Viennese balls and milongas

Both the conclusion of a Viennese ball and a milonga follow a similar ritual: a symbolic piece of music is always played at the end of the evening. In Vienna dancers end the evening with the famous waltz “On the beautiful blue Danube” by Johann Strauss, while milongas like to close with the tango “La Cumparsita”, which can be played in different orchestral versions.

However, we do not know how the balls ended in Buenos Aires and whether there was also a ritual relating to this. Looking at the various advertising posters, we see that waltz orchestras and even Argentine tango orchestras were not always represented in the music program of the evening.


There is a lot of information about the Viennese balls - undoubtedly because the tradition is still very much alive there. On the other hand, the evidence for such events in Argentina is sparse, although many historical details are known about tango in Buenos Aires.

However, we note that the Viennese balls and those from Buenos Aires have some common features, such as holding the dance events in the same season and in magnificent ballrooms, dancing to different musical styles and the elegant dress code.

The comparison of the Balls with the early milongas from Buenos Aires shows, however, considerable differences. These can be traced back, among other things, to the different social origins of the guests: the aristocracy and the upper class were to be found at the balls, while the immigrants, the middle class and the working class attended the milongas. 

That has changed in the meantime. Regardless of their social background, origin and age, all dancers go to milongas who would like to dance tango - all over the world.

The unifying element of the milongas and the ball nights of 1815, 1900 or today is undoubtedly the joy of dance, whether waltz in Vienna or tango in Buenos Aires. So let's all take up Ferrer's message: “Let us both dance” because the most important thing is to have a pleasant evening and have fun dancing!



Original blog article "Balls and Milongas in Vienna and Buenos Aires: Analysis and Comparison" by the authors S. Elefante, MV Arenillas, S. Jovicic and M. Elefante  

Argentinian Tango at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) and at IST Austria (Institute of Science and Technology):

Amartango, Tango School by Victoria Arenillas (co-author):

Literature tip: Otto Eder, "Tango!!! - A stranger in Vienna ", published by Ralf Sartori at Allitera-Verlag.


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