Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Loves of a Blonde; or, Czech Winter Balls

January is the month for balls here. Dances, that is, in formal attire.
My American readers will say “huh?” After all, to the best of my knowledge we don’t have that sort of thing in the US. It’s my understanding that high schools still have traditional proms and homecoming dances, which I imagine are vaguely similar to balls (I have not, of course, personally experienced any such thing, and don’t suppose I know too many people who have), but I don’t think adults get much chance to dress up and dance except at weddings and high-society events. (I am excluding clubs, parties, and dance classes, which are popular enough among my acquaintances.)
In the Czech Republic, however, everyone takes dance classes in early life, because every January there are balls to attend. Those of my readers who have watched early Forman films have seen evidence of this tradition, albeit in comic form.
But what would I know about this, other than by hearsay?
Early Thursday afternoon Jesse and I were wandering around Brno, not yet ready to go to the art salon, when Jesse commented that his cimbalom teacher would be performing at a ball on Saturday night and perhaps it would be instructive for him to attend this and see how cimbalom bands fit into traditional winter balls. In addition to the cimbalom band, the symphony and a jazz band were going to be performing.
I said that sounded intriguing. After all, how often do you get that kind of mixture of live music? It seemed to me that symphony plus band plus cimbalom group was a combination to put the average folk festival to shame for lack of diversity.
In short order we had gone in and bought tickets, which to our surprise were no more expensive than regular concert tickets (300Kč), so it then occurred to us that perhaps we could persuade other Fulbright people to join us. Well, Hubert, Alex, and Dawn were also intrigued, but decided that they were not going to go to Brno on such short notice. (We found out later that Alex was under the impression that Brno was four or five hours away, even though she has visited Jesse before and ought to know better.)
Well, it then occurred to us that perhaps we would have to find something to wear to this shindig. The clothes we had worn to the Embassy reception in September, while satisfactory for standing around drinking wine and eating hors d’oeuvres, did not seem quite right for attending balls. (And I will not give in to Megan’s hints and start talking about my Nepalese jacket.)
Somewhat earlier in the week, Štěpanka had entreated me to accompany her to Michael’s school dance (which I suspect is a fundraiser), and insisted that I would not need to buy anything new for that since she wasn’t going to, but of course Štěpanka lives here permanently and has a larger wardrobe to draw on. (I had contemplated bringing something exciting from Pittsburgh, but had, naturally, concluded that any sort of fancy dress would merely take up space in my luggage and never be worn.)
There was a tour of a downtown Brno mall on Friday (yes, I suppose someday I should write about the Czech mall craze). The fact that we don’t really understand European sizes was not helpful, but to our relief, Jesse eventually located an inexpensive suit that would work both for this and for conferences.
On the other hand, if I had thought that I too could have worn a wool suit to a ball, I would have been all set. Had it been a costume ball, I could have dressed up as a College Art Association panelist, although this would not have been my first choice since I would not want to get my suit all sweaty and have to have it cleaned.
No, it seemed likely that I ought to wear some sort of dress, and not one of the jumpers that I had brought to wear to the archives. Unfortunately, everything that looked appropriate for ballroom use was synthetic, and nearly all of it was sleeveless into the bargain. I don’t believe in going sleeveless unless the temperature outside is at least 75° Fahrenheit, and it is my firm belief that synthetic fabrics do not belong next to the skin. Their true function is to be water-repellent, which means that they are excellent for ski jackets and tents.
I did try on one synthetic dress just in case it might work. It looked rather decorative, but was at least a size too small and immediately caused me to break into a heavy sweat, which intensified as I attempted to remove the garment and experienced a claustrophobia attack. I wondered whether I would need to call for help whilst it was stuck from waist to above my head. Further, I pondered whether it would be terribly gauche to start shouting “Pomóc!” from a dressing room in a Brno mall. I was reminded of the sight of Ms. Spots trying to wriggle backwards out from behind my bed in Pittsburgh, except that rabbits like to insert themselves in tiny spaces and have their heads covered up, whereas I do not. The effect was probably more like that of a dachshund trapped inside a boot. (Keep in mind that I am relatively slender, although I expect I gained some weight over the holidays.)
Well, finally the garment consented to slide off and I did not have to enlist anyone to yank it off my body. This experience assured me that it would not be wise to sample any more synthetics, no matter how charming their design. Even when they fit properly, they induce massive full-body sweating.
I thought wistfully of certain beautiful silk dresses that are languishing in my Pittsburgh storage unit. They do not make me sweat all on their own, and they feel heavenly.
Ultimately, I decided that the main thing was to find something easier to dance in than my long black corduroy skirt, and eventually I found a nice long-sleeved cotton top and a full cotton skirt. I contemplated looking for shoes, but decided that with luck the elastic on my Danskos’ straps would hold throughout the evening, as they have a much more delicate appearance than my winter boots.
Jesse will have to describe the musicological aspect of the ball, but we were both intrigued by the anthropology of the thing. We were not sure exactly who the primary participant group was, except that presumably everyone other than ourselves was Czech and lived in Brno. Perhaps they all had a connection to the symphony. Jesse initially claimed that we were by far the youngest people there, but actually I think a fair number of people eventually showed up who were somewhere between thirty and fifty. Not all of the seats had been sold, so we had a table to ourselves, causing us to wish again that we had gotten a larger Fulbright contingent. I would say that the balcony was about 2/3 full, while the main floor was probably sold out.
The orchestra performed first, playing mainly numbers not meant for dancing, and ending with about three short dances, which we observed with interest from the balcony. After a break, a large band took the stage. Its function was to provide the jazz portion of the evening. We were not sure just what sort of jazz this was going to entail, and indeed as the evening progressed, I concluded that perhaps the band didn’t know either. It was a very competent band, I am sure, but although people did indeed dance to its music, for the most part I really did not know what was prompting them to do so.
That is to say, I am very fond of dancing (not that I get much chance to indulge this interest), but I will not dance to just any old music. I like to think that I will dance to quite a wide range of things—I have enjoyed dancing to rock bands of various sorts, swing bands, Cajun music, Hungarian music, Bulgarian music, conga drums, and who knows what else. I’ve taken classes in Sundanese dance, Renaissance and Baroque dance, and at various times I’ve been instructed in minuets, polkas, square dances, and other things (which is not to say that any of the steps remain in my repertoire longer than a week or so). I do require, however, that the music entice me out onto the dance floor.
Most of the music played by this band was of the sort that gave me that sit-down-and-stay feeling, where a glass of mineral water and a handful of pretzels seem more appealing than dancing. Every so often, however, the band would play something really good, causing me to start nagging to the tune of “Well, we’re at a dance, so I think we should do some dancing!” The invariable result of this was that once we got onto the dance floor and began to get acclimated, either the band would take a break or switch to something that struck us as unutterably boring. It occurred to us that on the whole, we were getting the kind of music we associate with wedding receptions held at chain hotels. Or, for that matter, with weddings where someone made a big mistake in choosing the DJ. It was the sort of music I associate with the generation born after my parents and before the Baby Boom. My parents’ generation had some pretty good dance music (as did my grandparents’), but apparently after Glenn Miller’s plane went down things went into a very bad state and there was nothing worth dancing to until Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.
Furthermore, it turned out that the cimbalom group was not going to take over from the band, but was going to play simultaneously on the lobby level. Had the main band been consistently boring, we would simply have abandoned it, but it had a sneaky knack for playing Gershwin and Glenn Miller tunes whenever we were thoroughly sick of it. We also didn’t want to miss out on (for those who remember from their Czech films)… THE RAFFLE!
Yes, and not just any raffle, but a raffle with tickets sold by majorettes in absurd costumes! Anyone who has watched Fireman’s Ball, or even Divoké včeli, can’t help but want to see a real raffle at a Czech ball. I wouldn’t say that this one exactly lived up to the comedy of the film versions, nor were we all that sure exactly what the prizes were (some of them looked like they might be pajama sets or something like that), but all the same we watched closely, hoping that our numbers wouldn’t be called. (They weren’t. Some people, however, won a whole collection of prizes. Perhaps the drawing was rigged. After all, it was done by majorettes.)
Well, after the raffle we went down to the cimbalom band for good. For some reason the management didn’t seem to think that anyone would actually dance to this group, so the only place to dance to it was in the space in front of the coat check and the restrooms, but we did perform a polka there. Later on some other younger attendees showed signs of badly wanting to dance to the music too, but they stoically resisted the urge, or their partners resisted it for them.
The cimbalom group, however, was excellent and decidedly inspired one to dance (except that apart from the polka, we didn’t know what was appropriate for the songs). During the breaks, Jesse’s teacher and his wife (a violinist) came over and chatted with us.
Overall, we quite enjoyed the ball. I would have enjoyed it more, or at least differently, if more of the music had struck us as worth dancing to, but the rest of the crowd did not seem to have this problem, and danced very happily all evening long. Since our reasons for attending were ethnographic in nature and not purely terpsichorean, we enjoyed watching and discussing the whole thing.
And, fortunately, while it was a cold enough night to be walking a couple of miles back to the house, the temperature had not yet taken the arctic plunge that was about to occur, nor had Jesse’s roommates been around to shut off the heat. All was well.

Photos mainly by Jesse (that is to say, not the tent or the shoe).

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