Modern balls in Bratislava are a colourful and social affair.
Across the region, women start hunting for the latest fashion trends in evening gowns while men declare war on the extra kilos put on during the holidays. They have to fit into their tuxedos, for the time to entertain, socialise, meet new people and be seen has arrived.
On the first 'Shrovetide Saturday', January 12, the second annual Bratislava Ball took place at the Reduta Hall, where Slovak celebrities showed off a pallet of the latest fashions. It marks the beginning of several balls to be held over the next few months in various Slovak cities.
During the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Bratislava event marked the beginning of the empire-wide Ball Season. Whereas it used to attract nobility from Vienna to Budapest, it's former status has been returned, making it a magnet for modern socialites.
"Ball Season has come alive, albeit in a new form," said Pavol Schwarz, director of the Bratislava Culture Centre. "As with all things, it must adapt to change. For example, there used to be grand balls organised by firemen or shoemakers, but this tradition has died out. Now, although it is difficult to revive past glory, the balls held in places like Reduta, Hotel Hubert or the Slovak National Theatre prove that it can be done."
During Shrovetide, which marks the period from Three Kings day (January 6) to Ash Wednesday (six weeks before Easter), people socialise at balls across the country. In the past, the so-called 'representation balls' - where the elite showed up en masse - were the opportunity for young ladies and gentlemen to be welcomed into prestigious social circles, and to meet other nobility. The profits from hosting such meetings of the wealthy provided the main income for the organisers. However, today the dances are mainly a matter of promotion.
"Large firms no longer organise balls with the intention of making a profit," said ethnologist Viera Feglová. "It's now more a matter of presentation and promotion. Moreover, the largest companies have begun to follow the American Las Vegas model for balls, which is expensive and must have famous celebrities on the guest list."
In the 18th century only the aristocracy threw balls, at events such as birthdays or coronations. But in the second half of the 19th century the celebrations began to spread throughout the lower social classes. Various professional, ethnic and religious clubs and institutions across the land organised balls ranging from 'representation' to Masked Balls, which were often open to the general public.
The most glorious balls were naturally held in Bratislava. However, because no definition existed of what a ball must be like, styles were varied. Different events showcased a mix of decorated interiors, quality music, dance and countless numbers of entertaining guests, who often exceeded 1,000. The balls were thrown at the most grandiose of Bratislava buildings, including the Bellevue, Albrecht garden, Pálffy Palace and later in the newly constructed Reduta, which also houses a casino.
Feglová singles out the Kaliko-domino Soiré Ball, organised by the most celebrated of the upper class in 1902 at Reduta, as the perfect illustration of the ball atmosphere at that time. The motif was life within the Danube River. Fish, snakes, fishermen's nets, shipwrecks and underwater flora decorated the spacious and colourfully illuminated rooms. A family of frogs rested on rocks. Wild geese and herons clouded the sky and a rich flower staircase led to the cave of the Danube God. Visitors in elegant robes then entered the large dance hall, where water-fairies invited them to dance.
The capital has tried to revive the eloquent atmosphere during the Bratislava ball season. The rich decorations, tables piled high with gourmet specialities and ladies' gowns add to the magic.
The pure rhythms of the waltz and foxtrot played by orchestras during the old days now alternate with songs sung by popular local singers and performers of Latino-American music. Dancing steps are more diverse. The once compulsory elaborate and flowing gowns have been replaced by modern fashion trends.
"The social mores have also changed," Feglová said. "In the past, it was impossible for a woman to go alone to a ball. It was also rude not to ask a woman's husband for permission to dance with her."
The representation balls have indeed evolved. However, while they now create a forum for closing contracts and exchanging business cards, they still cling to their main function - to entertain.
"Slovaks like to entertain, they are a sociable nation. People will always feel the need to meet other people. Their social feeling is strong, and that's why the balls have survived," Schwarz said.