Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Tripping up at the St Petersburg Ball

PW at home
It is not often that you find yourself galloping through a ballroom with a large transsexual in a pink dress whilst a dancing master in a frock coat calls out the steps. But that is what I found myself doing on a recent Saturday night in Marylebone’s Landmark Hotel.
It was the St Petersburg Ball, an annual event, now in its 19th year, in aid of the Children’s Burns Trust. The patron is Prince Michael of Kent  - who has strong Tsarist blood, being a cousin, twice removed, of Nicholas II.  There was also a young Tolstoy present. The idea is that it’s 1812, and we’re all at the ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Ideally facing less bloodshed.

I had managed to find a perfect green frock coat with a red and gold collar, which was only a little bit frayed, and a gold and silver waistcoat. “Are you going as Adam Ant?” asked an unkind friend.

When I was at school, if anyone mentioned ballroom dancing it was tantamount to standing on your head and talking in tongues: everyone ran a mile. But it’s one of those things – ballroom dancing, that is, not standing on your head - that in later life you wish they’d made compulsory, like those lessons when they taught you how to wire a plug. Although, to be fair, I haven't the least idea how to wire a plug these days.
As it turns out, the dances are relatively uncomplicated. You only have to pass the lady to your right, do a pas de bas, find another lady, pull her backwards whilst rotating two and half times to your left, all the while reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. That sort of thing. And all of this whilst several terribly grand ladies glare at you because you’ve accidentally trod on their chihuaha. Note to grand ladies: leave the chihuaha at home.

Luckily, at the first (and only) practice I went to before the ball, we had the services of the excellent Stuart, a dancing master who was probably born, spiritually speaking, in the Nineteenth century. His mission was to transform a bunch of malcoordinated twenty-first century types into elegant exemplars of the balletic arts. Harder than it sounds. Stuart glides; I trip. Stuart effortlessly turns as if he’s as light as a souffle; I stumble and clod-hop. Stuart, meanwhile, offers advice to the ladies: “There’s a simple way of getting rid of an unwanted suitor,” he says, and demonstrates driving a stiletto heel through someone’s foot.
The night arrived. So did I, terrified of the stilettoes, and was announced to the waiting crowds as “Mr Philip Wannock.” There were gorgeous embroideries, dainty jewelled shoes, finely stitched cloaks; and the women looked wonderful too, including the two lofty transsexuals, who swept along in trailing gowns, adding some fearsome glamour.

After dinner, we got down to the business of dancing, which, lubricated by generous top-ups of vodka, seemed to flow as if we’d all been doing it since we could walk. There is nothing quite so beautiful as a line of glittering men and women, bowing and curtseying and whirling in time to music (played by the brilliant British Imperial Orchestra), like a flock of well-dressed birds, all orange and pink and gold. My waltzing skills being not quite up to scratch, I was happy to be mostly led by my partner: suffice it to say that I think they made those dances so energetic on purpose. After a few twirls, I was so dizzy I’d have gone along with anything.

Those guests who popped outside for a cigarette would have been treated to the sight of me and a girl polka-ing crazily up and down the street in front of the hotel; back inside, not a few barked shins meant that the waltzes  were characterised by yelps and squeals amongst the elegance. When I came off the floor, grinning madly with my lady in tow, Stuart tapped me on the shoulder, eyebrows raised. “It’s wise,” he said, “not to leave your partner looking like she’s just raced the nationals.”

It was a fine, thrilling night, in aid of an excellent charity: and I’ll certainly be polishing up my pas de bas. Who knows when I might next need them?

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