The Dance of Manners

Why etiquette still matters; an interview with Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer and a lesson at the famed dancing school

On The Town | Sarah Rabl | June 2010

You approach the Palais Pallavicini in Vienna’s 1st District to the ringing sound of hooves, the suspended gate of a pair of carriage horses, and it is easy to let a century melt away, taking you back to the scenes and courtesies of Habsburg Vienna. As you pass the Spanish Riding School, you may catch a glimpse of the Lipizzaners being led across the courtyard to the dressage hall; and then, just around the corner, you pass the enormous dark green doors of  the Elmayer dancing school, announced in black letters on a gold field, the doorway to Vienna’s training ground for tact, etiquette and good manners.

The Palais Pallavicini, hosting the dancing school for the past 90 years is an elegant venue panelled in light-brown wood. It is a welcoming atmosphere; no cavernous spaces to get lost in. Entering the dancing school, a tall thin silhouette appears, slowly raising himself from his desk at the far end of the reception, who glides over to greet you with the graceful movements of a dancer. This is Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, owner and CEO of the school he has run since 1987. Accompanying him and almost outpacing, a fluffy and furry creature circles us, Rex, his golden retriever/collie crossbreed, who seems at least as eager as his master to participate in the interview.

Dancing has a long tradition in Austria’s capital. A century ago, two of the most important tasks of a young adult of a certain background were to learn to dance and to find a mate. Today, this has changed; education and career come first. But dancing "is still a valuable experience," says Schäfer-Elmayer, "and the dancing school is a meeting point for young people" and several thousand young people attend dancing lessons at the Elmayer dancing school every year.

But it is not only dancing that is taught at Elmayer’s. In the culture of the Viennese waltz come traditions of etiquette and good manners, the values that shape a personality.

"We are just human. We are not perfect," says Schäfer-Elmayer. "But the fact that we are working on our own development is the most important thing. We hope that dancing school Elmayer is contributing a little bit to creating in young people an awareness of these values."

This strong emphasis on manners is manifested in the motto of the dancing school, adapted from Confucius:

„Without grace of manner all knowledge is vain, and without dignity you are only a beggar, even if you go forth in gleaming golden satin and your slaves carry your sacks of gold behind you."

"It means, ‘Be respectful of other people,’ " says Schäfer-Elmayer. "And irrespective of your wealth or your position, you become fully, only if you behave in a human way. It  refers to the quality of life and depends on how much carefulness we put into our dealing with others."

Schäfer-Elmayer’s life did not always take place in the glamorous world of dancing. Having completed his studies at St. Gallen, he then entered into his professional field, the industrial sector, doing business all over the globe. After 17 years of international experience, he was suddenly called back to Vienna. His father, the former owner of the Elmayer dancing school, retired, wished to hand the running of the dancing school over to his son.

"Of course, I was considering the pros and cons," he remembered, "but then I finally thought that this was an opportunity to dedicate my life to our dancing school and the Viennese ball tradition." Did he ever regret this decision? "I don’t think you can regret or not regret such a decision, because I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed on," he reflected. But he doesn’t look unhappy. "It is as important to make the best of a decision than to make the decision itself."

This he has done. Today, the Elmayer dancing school is the most renowned institution of the Austrian ball tradition. So to see just what was involved, The Vienna Review signed up for a dance lesson at Elmayer.

Eight couples gather in the smaller dancing room at the far end of the dancing school, decorated with life-sized mirrors on the honey-brown panelled facades. Above each mirror, golden-sparkling letters with the school’s name are attached to the walls. The approximately 50 m² room is brightly lit from a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The parquet floor could tell stories from more than 90 years at the Elmayer dancing school. In the dressing room, the couples carefully slip into their leather dancing shoes they have brought along.

A young man in grey suit and a gold tie sweeps into the room. Bernd Erblich, dancing instructor for the past 9 years, welcomes the participants to their fourth dance session and quickly reviews what they have already learned.

Opening this week’s session with the Slow Waltz, the dance instructors demonstrate the smooth nimbleness and the floating movements this dance. The couples begin in fits and starts struggling to recall the steps already learned. In a Viennese waltz, that turns left instead of right, you have to lean back away from your partner and into the swing; I do my best to throw my head back and to the left, as required, with what I hope is just the right dramatic flare. My boyfriend laughs. A young couple to our right stumbles over their own feet and break down in giggles. The sound of squeaking gives a number of the participants away. Wrong shoes. A middle aged gentlemen wearing a beige suit stumbles over the pointed-toed feet of his dance-partner. The laughter seems contagious. All of a sudden, one couple stops altogether, completely lost.

"The question is: When to use which foot," proclaims Erblich. "Well, you just have to start with the right one. Right (side-together), left (side-together), right (side-together), left..." The soft tunes of an unhurried 3/4 waltz fade away. Now the reverse turn... The clear instructions still leave some participants with puzzled expressions on their faces, and the dance instructors come to clarify.

The last waltz for the session is a romantic, slow and easy waltz. The couple catch each other’s eyes, the looks soften, all posture forgotten. The lyrics "I couldn’t live without you," even start the dance instructors to tease each other.

Time change. A relaxed though fast in speed 4/4  indicates the next dance. A boogie. The basic dance patterns already manifested, two additional moves spell trouble and confusion. "My dear gentlemen, please don’t just watch your partner dance but keep in time!" Erblich states ironically, triggering light-hearted chuckles in the room, "and in case the young lady standing in front of you after the turn is still someone you know, please continue dancing."  The sounds that now fill the room are familiar to a herd of wild animals stomping through the classroom. The tunes of "see you later alligator" provoke merriment and the wild herd of animals turns into a herd of singing and dancing alligators. However, not all animals are capable of multitasking…

Yet again, the Tango requires a different type of temperament and dance students usually recall ideas from Hollywood when studying the Tango and immediately try to imitate the famous posture. This film stereotype does not entirely hold true. To a solemn and moderately fast Tango, the couples practice the rather sophisticated basic step.

To end this week’s session, a last Viennese Waltz is on the schedule. Serious and concentrated gestures show that the couples are trying to keep up with the whirl of the music and are already managing a lot better than at the beginning of this week’s class.

With the last beats, the music slowly fades, first into silence, allowing the couples to complete their last reverse turn for the session, and then give a warm hand for the dance instructors. Elmayer is much more than a dancing school: It is a century of tradition and values, of spirit and manners, all served up with Viennese flair.

With this in mind: Alles Walzer!

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