06/26/2012 07:08 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

The Unexpected Beauty Of A Viennese Ball (PHOTOS)

You've been invited to get all gussied up in black-tie or flowing gown for an elegant soirée of waltzing and sipping champagne. Did anyone mention that the affair was to be held in a horse stable? And you're expected to shell out for this opportunity?

Keep an open mind. The third edition of the Fête Impériale, a fundraiser ball in support of Vienna's legendary Spanish Riding School and its dancing Lipizzan horses, takes place later this week. We're talking about getting your party on with 2,500 other guests at the Hofburg, the enormous imperial palace expanded over the centuries by Maria Theresa (aka, Marie Antoinette's mom) and other Habsburg rulers.

The Hofburg's Winter Riding School is where the sturdy Lipizzan, well, waltz in their own celebrated manner. At Fête-time, the high-ceilinged hall is turned over to Vienna's top musical and dance talent to strut their stuff. The soirée carries over to the courtyard of the adjacent stable whose Renaissance élan surely makes it the most noble horse corral on earth. While the horses spend the summer in the countryside, a few will be on hand for the festivities which means that, yes, you might keep your eyes open for what in German are called "horse apples."

If the splendor of the Hofburg venue doesn't grab you, how about male strippers? During their routine in last year's Fête opening, a ballet troupe donned clown noses and stripped down to their boxers. The brief interlude of Unterhosen blitzen delighted the crowd and illustrates how the capital city is moving away from grandpa's old world balls to ones of whimsy and color.

The Fête is the pet project of high-society dynamo Elisabeth Gürtler, owner of the prominent Hotel Sacher -- otherwise known as purveyor of the world's finest chocolate cake. Gürtler also serves as general director of the Spanish Riding School and conceived of the bash as a means to help fund the breeding program for the august horse race (maintaining 250-300 horses costs $10,000 a day).

The stone buildings were decked out last year in very-un-monarchial turquoise and lime green (this year's palette will be yellow and violet), and thousands of orchids added luster. In a nod to the Lipizzans' coats turning from dark to light in adulthood, the dance floor sported a black-and-white checkerboard motif.

Counts and diplomats, entrepreneurs and tycoons, artists and flaneurs arrived at the Hofburg's sweeping entrance in Fiaker, Vienna's old-school, horse-drawn carriages. As part of the incongruous cross-celebration of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyade's 84th birthday, Thai Royal Guards "monitored" from their mounts as diplomats and beauties in vibrant silk dresses and sashes greeted guests at a Thai pavilion.

As the orchestra struck up the pomp inside the riding hall, uniformed imperial troops marched in, followed by 80 pair of debutants who executed a paso doble to Johann Strauss the Younger's Spanish March. A soprano's carriage entry was more dramatic than expected as her Lipizzan threatened to bolt. Eventually, the traditional ball cry of "Alles walzer" went up as the floor was opened to waltzing guests.

All night party-goers cavorted under a disco ball in the stables to a live band playing pop, rock and soul hits, while a DJ took over in the pauses (bet the kaisers never had DJ's). To cool off from the summer heat guests retreated to the garden for wurst and ice cream breaks -- and to crowd the small stakes gambling tables.

In the wee hours, when ties were crooked and heels broken, revelers did their best Harry Lime imitation and stepped into the shadowy, cobblestone Habsburg streets. Literally, as the Josefsplatz and other landmark Third Man turf where Welles and Joseph Cotten roamed in the great film are right outside the riding school arches.

Vienna puts on some 300 balls a year, many of them benefits like the flamboyant springtime Life Ball, Europe's largest AIDS fundraiser. If you wish to witness the Fête Impériale in its early days, spring for loge seats in the Winter Riding Hall to get full viewing privileges of the opening festivities. No promises, however, that the ballet gents will be stripping again this year.

If you go:
The Fête Impériale takes place on June 29. Info and tickets are available online. Recently renovated, the historic Hotel Sacher is just a few blocks away from the ball. You'll need to learn to waltz, and the legendary Tanzschule Elmeyer has been teaching the proper whirls since the '20s. Sit back at the Flossmann bridal shop with a cup of Viennese coffee while you get fitted for a tux or gown. Star chef Christian Domschitz's Vestibül restaurant occupies the Burgtheater's former imperial carriage entrance. Its outdoor seating makes for fine summer evening dining.

For post-Fête relaxation, head to the formerly forlorn Vienna Canal whose banks are now lined with bike paths and man-made beaches (no wonder Vienna is ranked the world's most livable city. Among dozens of lounges along the canal, the outdoor Strandbar Herrmann is named for the man who invented the postcard. Motto am Fluss is a floating restaurant at the dock for the Bratislava-bound hydrofoils. Likewise, Badeschiff Wien is a bar/restaurant boat with a pool on it. At the top of the new black-clad, Jean Nouvel-designed Sofitel tower hotel, Le Loft restaurant draws a hip crowd for its swirling LED ceiling display and views of the city center. Next to the iconic '60s InterContinental hotel, the public ice rink is turned into Sand in the City, and artificial beach with a whole universe of bars and sports activities.

Having a Ball in Vienna