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Theresa Johnston
Viennese Waltz
United States
San Francisco Bay Area
Stanford, CA

Stanford Viennese Ball 2002

by Theresa Johnston
March 1, 2000
Stanford, CA

Stanford Viennese Ball 2002


Forget hip hop, funk and techno.
Stanford's biggest night is
Strictly Ballroom

Reprinted by permission of STANFORD magazine, published by Stanford Alumni Association, Stanford University.

What They Were Wearing

Related Site:
Viennese Ball 2002

Stanford Magazine:
Stanford Magazine May June 2002 issue

GRAND OPENING: The Eröffnungskomitee
performed a waltz and a polka. Yu and Hu are third and fourth from

So were more than a thousand Stanford friends and classmates. But when
Sherry Yu and An-swol Hu and 17 other student couples glided onto the
polished dance floor of San Jose’s Fairmont Hotel March 1 for the
opening ceremony of this year’s Viennese Ball, they looked as calm
and stately as Hapsburg royals.

Yu, a senior majoring in computer science, and Hu, a senior in electrical
engineering, had auditioned for this fairy-tale moment months earlier,
competing with dozens of other students for the honor of dancing on the
ball’s prestigious Eröffnungskomitee, or opening committee.
Since November, the chosen couples had practiced their dance steps twice
a week, twirling about in jeans and T-shirts under the arched windows
of Roble Gym. Now, formally attired in billowing white satin gowns and
crisp black tailcoats, they took their places under the Fairmont’s
great chandeliers, lightly clasped their white-gloved hands, and launched
into an intricate choreographed rendition of Johann Strauss the Younger’s

GETTING READY: Novices take lessons in Toyon Hall.

By the final eins-zwei-drei, even Donald Carlton
Burns, the impeccably attired Austrian consul, was impressed. “Over
the years I have seen some bad waltzing,” he confessed, medals tinkling
alongside his lapel. But the performers at Stanford’s annual ball
are so outstanding, he remarked, that the event has become the highlight
of his cultural year. “Last year was the first time my wife and I
had attended,” he said, “and we were absolutely overwhelmed.
I had no idea that such an event was even possible to organize outside
of Vienna.”

Tuxedoes and rose boutonnieres, white gloves and careful choreography—in
so many ways the Viennese Ball is a complete departure from the Farm’s
usual California-casual ambience. Yet for a quarter century, Stanford
students not only have kept the ball alive, they’ve created a University
institution. The first ball, launched by a die-hard band of returning
Stanford-in-Austria students in Toyon Lounge on January 27, 1978, attracted
about 350 dancers. This year’s gala at the Fairmont drew a crowd
of nearly 1,200, including many students who can’t speak a word of
German and weren’t even out of preschool when the University closed
its Austrian overseas study center in 1987.

SHOPPING TILL THEY DROP: May Ling Halim, '03, Florence
Wong, '03, and Domi Le, '02, try on dresses.

“Once winter quarter starts, the Viennese Ball starts floating about
the air and everybody starts thinking about it and talking about it,”
says Hu, co-chair of this year’s ball and one of many enthusiastic
Asian-American students who have stepped up to run the event in recent
years. Senior Walter Shen, his friend and co-chair, nods. “The Viennese
Ball is one of the biggest student-run events on campus, and the classiest
one there is,” he says. “There aren’t too many nice romantic
things that go on at Stanford, so if you have a special girl or guy, this
is the big night.”

ATTIRED: Justin Svec, '03, and Yu-Kuan Lin, '02,
fix their neckwear.

Stanford’s most elegant tradition, ironically, had its beginnings
during one of the tackiest fashion eras in modern history. It was 1974—year
of wide plaid lapels, earth shoes and jowly sideburns—and Hedi Thimig
was in her second year as associate director of Stanford’s overseas
study program on Karl Lueger Platz in central Vienna. As Thimig recalled,
it was her assistant’s idea to involve Stanford students in Vienna’s
Fasching (carnival) season, a Teutonic version of Mardi Gras that begins
on New Year’s Eve and lasts until the Tuesday before Lent. During
Fasching, hundreds of Viennese professional organizations and trade guilds
sponsor glittering dress balls, sometimes as many as 19 or 20 on a single
night. The groups, ranging from the formal aristocracy to journalists,
bakers and pork butchers, typically start their balls at around 10 p.m.
with lavish opening ceremonies, followed by champagne, pastries and dancing
until dawn, when the city’s streetcars begin to roll again.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: The opening committee rehearses
in Roble Gym.

Thimig, a buoyant woman with connections in elite Viennese cultural circles,
arranged for a highly regarded, elderly Viennese dance instructor named
Willi Franz to come to Stanford’s overseas study center for several
weeks and teach the somewhat dubious California youngsters the basics
of waltz and polka. As it turned out, that was the easy part. A bigger
challenge was rustling up the appropriate apparel. “Not only did
these students not have black shoes, they didn’t have black socks,
they didn’t have black tuxes, they didn’t have the tails, they
didn’t have the shirts, they didn’t have anything,” Thimig
recalled in a 1985 interview with Stanford’s Campus Report.
“I remember that at the first few balls, my Austrian assistants and
friends were sitting around at home more or less in the nude, because
he lent his shoes to this student, she lent shoes to that student. My
poor father almost went berserk because I took all his tuxedo shirts away.
We had to tie the students’ bows for them and everything. Or we’d
have to say, ‘You go to the hairdresser before the ball because you
can’t go to the ball with hair like that.’”

THE MOVES MATTER: Choreographer Kao consults with
Jed Burgess, '00, MS '01.

Despite the aesthetic challenges, Stanford students became increasingly
enchanted with the Fasching scene—precisely because it was so different
from anything they had known in the United States. Mark Phillips, now
a business consultant in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one of several former Stanford-in-Austria
students who flew to San Jose this year to participate in the ball’s
25th-anniversary celebration. A former engineering student, he fondly
remembers the footprints painted on the hallway floors of the Vienna center
in an effort to teach students the correct dance steps. The Fasching balls
were about the only time that Phillips, ’79, MS ’81, and his
Stanford classmates saw the normally staid Austrians let loose and smile.
“The pace of the dancing, I think, brought out the kid in everyone,”
he says. “You can fake a Viennese waltz and still have a lot of fun.”

SHOWTIME: Edoardo Maragliano, MS '98, Cathy Quinones,
'99, and the other members of Decadance swing it out (top). Above,
the opening committee awaits its cue.

For Anita Bravman, twirling the night away at the Fasching balls was
a chance to live out her dearest childhood fantasies—even if she
was wearing an evening gown borrowed from her mother. Now sitting in the
counselor’s office at the Sunnyvale elementary school where she teaches
second grade, Bravman, ’80, leafs through a scrapbook of photos from
her overseas study days, pointing out a black-and-white picture taken
at the opening ceremony of the 1977 pharmacists’ association ball
in Vienna’s Imperial Palace. Her assigned escort that night was a
dashing young officer in the Austrian military. “I’ve always
been more of a romantic kind of person; sometimes I felt like I belonged
in another century,” Bravman says. “So there I was in a formal
gown, dancing to a symphony orchestra in a marble-studded palace. It was
like one of those dreams where you finally get to be the fairy-tale princess.”

Most smitten of all the returning Stanford-in-Austria students was Jeff
Ryan, now executive director of Morgan Stanley’s financial services
office in Hong Kong. During the winter and spring of 1977, the international
relations major danced the night away at five Fasching balls, including
three in one five-night period. Ryan, ’79, found the whole experience
so magical that he felt compelled to recreate it once he got back to California.
“That was the closing era of disco dancing,” he explains, “so
we weren’t sure if it would fly.” Nevertheless, he and several
friends at Haus Mitteleuropa, Stanford’s then-new German studies
theme house, decided to give it a try. To drum up enthusiasm, they waltzed
through dorm cafeterias at dinnertime. “We all thought Jeff was crazy,”
Mark Phillips recalls, “but somehow, the scheme took on a life of
its own.” By the night of the first Viennese Ball, 175 couples had
purchased the $7 tickets—a capacity crowd for Toyon Hall.

TRADITION: Many alumni attend the ball, including
Yves Lu, '00, MS '01, (top, with junior Crystal Chen), and Elizabeth
"Buffie" Eilert Grewal, '84 (above, with her husband, Hardev).

Buoyed by their first-year success, organizers decided to make the second
Viennese Ball a more elaborate affair. Students who first learned to dance
in Vienna offered free waltzing lessons in the dorms during the weeks
preceding the ball, while others worked to convince local bakeries, wineries,
linen suppliers and tuxedo-rental shops to donate their services. Erik
Hill, ’79, negotiated with two Bay Area nurseries to borrow trees
and bushes that transformed the interior of Roble Gym into a verdant Viennese

The ball’s second year saw the debut of Austria Week: seven days
of folk dancing exhibitions in White Plaza, a coffeehouse serving German
pastries at Haus Mitt, a film festival, and even a one-act opera, all
building up to the big night. “Except for the German movies, which
most people couldn’t understand, all the events were fairly successful,”
says Bravman, one of the first Austria Week organizers.

Although enrollment at Stanford in Austria declined significantly by
the mid-1980s, and the University closed the program in 1987 in favor
of building up its campus in Berlin, Austria Week continues today. And
its main attraction—the ball—hasn’t skipped a beat. By
the mid-1990s, the demand for tickets became so great that students began
to line up two nights before they went on sale. Seeking to accommodate
more partygoers, including alumni, organizers moved the event off campus
in 1998, first to Hyatt Rickeys in Palo Alto and later to the Hyatt at
San Francisco International Airport.

GIVE IT A WHIRL: The 1977 Stanford-in-Austria students
(above) decided the University was ready for a dress ball. Young alums
like John Reuter, '00 (top) are still proving them right.

This year’s silver-anniversary ball at the Fairmont—a lavish
event that included both a swing and a waltz band, commemorative wineglasses
and a buffet of roast beef, Caesar salad, fruit and desserts—required
the efforts of some 60 student volunteers and an $80,000 budget, largely
from the Dean of Students office and an ASSU
fee assessment. Tickets ran $75 per couple for students; $95 for faculty,
staff and alumni. And that’s not even counting the money that students
spent on cummerbunds, camisoles and corsages. Like giddy high school promgoers,
Stanford students lay out big bucks each year at local florists, bridal
stores and tuxedo rental shops, all in an effort to achieve that perfect
Viennese Ball look. “It’s so much fun to go dress shopping and
then get your petticoats and all your accessories,” explains Lily
Kao, ’00, MS ’01, the neurobiology research assistant who choreographed
this year’s opening ceremony along with computer science doctoral
student Mike Lin, ’95. “The Viennese Ball is a big deal on this
campus. It’s like the high school prom, only classier, because here
people actually know how to dance.”

Kao credits much of the Viennese Ball’s enduring success to Stanford’s
thriving social dance program, now in its 10th year under the direction
of Richard Powers. When the popular instructor joined the dance division
in 1992, he had just 40 students wanting to learn to waltz, foxtrot, swing
and tango. By winter quarter of this year, that number was up to 1,000.
One time, Powers, MS ’70, announced that sign-ups for dance classes
would begin at 9 the next morning, only to find students lining up in
front of Roble Gym at 7:30 the night before. “By midnight, the line
was around the corner,” he says, “and anyone who came after
4:30 a.m. didn’t get in.” The University also has seen an explosion
of dance-oriented student clubs in recent years, ranging from hip-hop
and salsa groups to Decadance, a high-energy swing ensemble that performed
to applause this year in the ball’s swing room.

BALANCING ACT: The Cardinal Ballet performs a scene
from Giselle during the opening ceremonies of the ball.

Certainly, much of this toe-tapping can be attributed to the nationwide
resurgence of swing dancing. And, of course, ballroom dancing is a great
way for Stanford students to meet members of the opposite sex. Powers,
who also happens to be a California deputy wedding commissioner, has officiated
at the marriages of three couples who met in his classes, and he can’t
even begin to count the number of romantic relationships that have blossomed
on the dance floor.

Dance classes and formal events like Viennese Ball also can supply something
that’s missing for many Stanford students: balance. Powers notes
that about 40 percent of the students in his classes are engineering majors.
“Many have had their focus on their studies since they were in grade
school,” he says, “and to have a nonlinear, nonverbal, right-brained
learning experience is important.” Last year’s ball chair, Alice
Ganier, ’01, agrees. “People at Stanford spend so much time
being busy and working for the future, but the Viennese Ball is about
the here and now,” she says. “At the ball, everybody’s
dressed up and everything’s slower. You can’t really rush around
in high heels.”

That’s why the ball appeals even to those who can’t parse a
polka. “Since I’m not into the dancing scene, I go more to spend
time with my friends,” says senior Jason Cheng. “Specifically,
this means dressing up, going out to a nice dinner and then seeing everyone
else dressed up at the ball. I see it as a fun opportunity to go out and
do something different.”

And students aren’t the only ones who feel that way. Each year,
the organizing committee sends out invitations to a host of Stanford friends
and dignitaries, including past ball organizers, the Austrian consul general
in San Francisco, and University deans, provosts and presidents. Robin
Mamlet, Stanford’s dean of admission, attended her first Viennese
Ball last year and was “bowled over” by the experience, even
though she was a novice at waltzing. The ball “captured the intellectual
best of Stanford,” she says, incorporating “history, culture,
music, pageantry, dance and sheer fun. What an incredible way to come
to know the University.”

As for the original Stanford-in-Austria students, they’re just happy
to know the ball has survived. Ryan, for one, finds that whenever he mentions
his part in the start-up of the Viennese Ball to current students, they
tell him how much they love it. “To me,” he says, “that’s
better than being elected to Phi Beta Kappa.”

This year, Ryan flew all the way from Hong Kong to attend the 25th-anniversary
ball. As he watched the glittering scene at the Fairmont, he was reminded
of the biblical story of the mustard seed. “It started out so small,”
he said in wonder, “and look at how it has grown.” Then the
band started up a polka, and Ryan politely excused himself and headed
to the dance floor to gallop in circles with An-swol and Sherry, the Austrian
consul, and his old friends from Vienna. The evening was still young.
And it’s not every night that a person can feel like royalty.

Theresa Johnston, ’83,
is a Palo Alto writer and frequent contributor to Stanford.

What They Were Wearing

the brass band struck up its first tune,
the couples began to pour in and the sound of taffeta brushing against
crinoline filled the air. It was the 25th annual Viennese Ball, the closest
Stanford would come to Oscar Night this year, and for me, STANFORD’s
freelance fashion reporter, it was the closest I’d ever come
to being Joan Rivers. I hastily got into character.

My first victims: Walter Shen and An-swol Hu, this year’s
ball chairs. After brief introductions, I proceeded: “You look fabulous,
daaahlings. Who, may I ask, are you wearing?” They looked blank.
Okay, in Hollywood we were not. While they were still contemplating wearing
a “who,” I regrouped. “What do you think of tonight’s
fashions?” “Oh, everyone looks very elegant and classy,”
said Walter. “It’s so nice to see students dressed up for a
change.” Boring, I thought, but continued encouragingly: “Does
anything stand out this year?” “Well, everyone always looks
the same to me, but I love the white gowns on the Opening Committee ladies,”
tried An-swol. We were onto something. “Oh yes, white was all over
this season’s runways,” I supplied. An-swol beamed, clearly
pleased with himself.

I left the boys for a few spins around the dance floor,
where some trends became clear to this trained eye. Although tried-and-true
black and white was widespread, as usual, it looked very updated in bold
graphic stripes, black dresses with white peekaboo pleats, and a lovely
vintage number sported by second-year master’s student Katherine
Kuchenbecker, ’00, who dazzled in an antiqued ivory organza high-necked
empire bodice with a black crinkle crepe skirt. On the other hand, I was
pleased to see more color on the floor than I had expected, at least on
the ladies. Although the gents were very traditional, their dates were
resplendent in shades of crimson, aquamarine, coral and violet. Most notable
was Cara Bertron, ’04, who embodied this year’s bohemian/gypsy
chic, from her seafoam chiffon layered panel slip dress to the delicate
flowers in her hair.

Other trends to note: lots of lace-up or twist backs,
plenty of side ruching, a handful of mandarin collars and several flutter
sleeves. I loved the tea-length (or mid-calf) looks from Laundry and Alex
Evenings, saw not nearly enough fringe and way too much velvet (it was
March, let’s not forget, girls). Evening separates played a small
but important part—metallic sparkle tops with solid taffeta skirts
looked very 2002. Asymmetrical or one-shoulder tops, of which there were
few, cried 2001. Lace made a major statement as predicted, nowhere more
gloriously than on Bao Phan, ’02, whose friend designed her exquisite
black floor-length strapless with beaded lace trim and train, and matching
choker necklace.

Beading was everywhere, from solid, all-over caviar
beads to ombre or floral patterns to beaded accents. Joyce Shih, ’02,
looked playful yet elegant in a punch-colored Cassandra Stone spaghetti-strap
gown with red and silver cascade beading on the bodice and a solid georgette
skirt. Audrey Tsang, ’02, a swing performer, donned a sophisticated
mermaid-tail ballgown with scatter beads and flower appliqués by
Sue Wong, a new designer that many other attendees also favored. Connie
Chen, ’04, got my vote for best choice of fabric in her v-neck BCBG
floor-length coral tulle gown with scattered iridescent paillette sequins.
I loved the tulle so much I didn’t even care that the dress was from
two seasons ago!

Victoriana played only a small role, but when it appeared it was outstanding.
Donna Sy, ’99 (left), in yards and yards of brick red silk with dark
red fringe, black lace trim, portrait collar and cameo brooch, transported
me back to the Gone with the Wind era in the best way possible.
And vintage, always one of my favorite looks, appeared as relevant and
now as ever on the dance floor. Joanna Hiatt, ’02 (top), was my winner
in this category, in her mother’s baby blue accordion-pleat gown
(purchased for $1 nine years ago) and white beaded gloves. Superb, and
perfectly topped off by classic hair and vintage diamond drop earrings.

Speaking of accessories, the tiara reigned supreme this
evening. Thankfully, glitter dust seems to have had its day, and hair,
overall, looked very elegant, often in piles of pinned-up curls. Unfortunately,
the ladies did not make the best use of their most obvious accessory,
their dates. There wasn’t nearly enough coordination between couples
and, in general, the gents looked quite bland in their Selix rentals.
The guys from the swing ensemble stood out in their all-black suits with
bold cranberry graphic-print ties. Select others looked just right in
updated piqué-textured shirts and bowties, or tonal white-on-white
paisley vests, but I saw just one top hat and only a few tails—a
less than valiant effort, boys.

said, two men stood out from the crowd of black tuxes and deserve notice
here. Bill Cockayne, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, sported
a delightful charcoal paisley-print corduroy dinner jacket with satin
lapels by Saks Fifth Avenue, an embroidered white shirt and simple slacks.
Greg Davis, ’03 (right), took the cake, however, in an authentic
Scottish kilt in MacFarlane clan tartan, coordinating Prince Charlie cropped
coatee and vest with braided trim, and rabbit-fur sporran (the traditional
waistpurse). Bold, original and unafraid: my pick for man of the evening.
And so what if he’s my brother—good taste just runs in the family,
I guess.

Jen Davis, ’99, is an assistant buyer of
social dresses at Macy’s in San Francisco.

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