Suiting up for a formal ball
This Saturday night I’ll be doing my best Cinderella impression, setting aside my jeans and sneakers and instead donning a gown and heels for a formal ball. In Czech, a formal ball is called a ples. Formal balls are a long-standing tradition that most Czechs have taken part in at least once in their lives. The events can be held anywhere from historic castle ballrooms to the meeting rooms of the local sokol (community center). The balls are often sponsored by an institute or civic organization, such as the Fireman’s Ball or a town’s annual Spring Ball. Perhaps the most famous type of Czech ples is the annual maturitní ples, a formal graduation dance held in the spring at the end of střední škola (middle school) for students who’ve passed their mandatory leaving exams.
Years ago, I attended a maturitní ples in honor of Radek’s first-cousin’s graduation. A Czech maturitní ples is a celebratory event attended by not only the graduating students, but also their teachers, parents and relatives. Radek and I were invited by his aunt to join them for the evening, so that I could experience the tradition. Upon arrival, were offered a shot of Becherovka. Afterward, we sat at a table with his aunt, uncle and grandparents where we ordered dinner and watched the ceremony unfold. Radek’s cousin and his girlfriend danced a few formal dances with their classmates. Many of them had learned these dance steps in their school’s optional dancing lessons. A live band then played formal dance music for hours, and the students were joined by their parents and even some teachers on the dance floor. I was surprised by how long and how well the Czechs (both young and old) kept up the formal dancing.
Later in the evening, ties were loosened, the band was replaced by CDs and the dancing style changed to pop. During breaks in the music, everyone sipped wine or beer at their tables or joined their friends for a shot at the bar. It seemed quite strange at the time to see parents and children having a drink together. But with the legal drinking age at 18, drinking with parents and their friends is normal for new graduates. In the Czech Republic, it’s also traditional to “invite” a friend or relative for a shot at social gatherings, with the unspoken agreement that you will return the invitation later in the evening. As the night wore on, the Becherovka shots that Radek’s grandfather and uncle offered us began to take their toll. I spent the following day sick in bed, and the experience has left an indelible impression of a Czech ples.
Each autumn when our neighbors begin to talk about attending the annual local ples, a tradiční poštácký ples (Traditional Postman’s Ball), neither Radek nor I have been that interested in attending. For starters, neither of us is a very good formal dancer. To date, our formal dance experience culminated in the “first dance” at our wedding.
In preparation for that very public dance, we took a month of pre-wedding dance lessons at a studio in New York City. We picked the fast-paced Chuck Berry hit “You Never Can Tell,” from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Our instructor, a svelte, high-heeled wearing woman, taught us the basic swing steps and we practiced the moves in my aunt’s basement apartment. We sent a CD of the song to our band and they assured us they’d have it ready for the big night. When the band broke into song, Radek and I quickly realized that our fast-paced, CD-based practice didn’t line up with the band’s richer, slower version. Still, we stepped and twirled over the dance floor keeping moderate time with the band. Our friends and families were so surprised to see us doing any kind of formal dancing that I believe we were the only ones who noticed our slight-deviation from the beat.
Since formal dancing isn’t in our skill-set, and we have ample chances to socialize informally with our neighbors at birthday parties and barbeques, we weren’t inspired to respond to their previous invitations. It always seemed like a hassle to find a babysitter who would be willing to stay overnight (or very late). Plus, there was the trouble of buying or renting a formal dress. Formal dressing-up isn’t my forte. The style for ladies’ ball gown dresses here seems similar to prom attire: long, shiny, sequined, suck-your-tummy-in dresses with matching purses. I’ve attended three proms in three different dresses; I didn’t think I needed an adult-version repeat. Still, I was curious.
This year when Radek forwarded me the official email invitation, curiosity got the best of me. My long-ago maturitní ples experience symbolized a previous life, and I was ready to enjoy an adult ples with friends. I decided it was time to re-experience the formal dancing element of Czech culture that a surprisingly large portion of the population enjoys, at least once. It didn’t take much convincing to get Radek to agree to attend. Several couples on our street go every year, and I think he was also mildly interested.
Our neighbor’s seventeen-year-old daughter offered to watch our children and sleep over at the house, so the babysitting issue was quickly resolved. The children, delighted with the anticipation of finally having a babysitter, take-out pizza and a movie, were eager to see us head out on the town without them. A few of our neighbors reassured me that they spend a good portion of the evening just sitting and socializing, rather than dancing. Although, I don’t really believe them, as I’ve watched how Czechs enjoy a good formal dance, I know we’ll probably feel at home enough to enjoy ourselves regardless of how much we dance.
Unlike Cinderella, I don’t have a fairy godmother who can wave her wand and make me “fancy,” but I did the next best thing and called a good friend to see if I could borrow a dress. She offered me two, both black and short. She’s worn them to Czech balls and they’ve met with approval, so I believe I’ll be all right. Our invitation says there is also supposed to be a bohatá tombola (a rich mix, perhaps). I guess I’ll discover what that means on Saturday.
I’ve got a borrowed dress, a pair of heels and Radek’s got a suit. We have the right attitude, and with any luck the band might play a swing song or two and we can show our friends that what we lack in formal dancing, we make up for in spirit. Wish me luck (and hold the Becherovka).