As It Happens

The 1st LGBTQ pair to dance at Vienna Opera Ball are challenging a 200-year tradition

Sophie Grau and Iris Klopfer will join a procession of young debutantes to waltz at this year's ball for an audience of 2.5 million TV viewers.

Sophie Grau and Iris Klopfer will join this year's procession of young debutantes

For one night every year, Austria's top society welcomes a new group of young people at the Vienna Opera Ball. (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

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For the first time in over 200 years, an openly LGBTQ pair will dance at Vienna's Opera Ball.

On Feb. 20, German students Sophie Grau and Iris Klopfer will join a procession of young debutantes and waltz together at the internationally beloved event.

Grau and Klopfer are not a romantic couple, just two friends who identify as queer who have been dancing together for about five years. They say they decided to apply because they were taken in by what Grau called "the perfect dance."

"We saw videos of the past years and it looked so beautiful," Grau told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"There's about 150 couples and one [partner] is wearing a traditional black suit with a white shirt underneath, and the other is wearing a white ball gown. So it's very symmetrical, and they're all doing the same routine.

"With the combination of the opera house, which has great lighting and is a really historic building ... we just got inspired and decided: why not apply? Why not try?"

Sophie Grau, left, and Iris Klopfer, right, have been dancing together informally on-and-off for about five years. (Submitted by Sophie Grau)

The Vienna Opera Ball dates back to the early 1800s. For one night every year, Vienna's top society and political figures dress to the nines at the Vienna State Opera to inaugurate a fresh crop of young people.

This year's ball has over 5,000 registered guests and is expected to be watched live on TV by 2.5 million viewers. 

The Vienna Opera Ball dates back to the early 1800s. Hundreds of deubtantes are seen here dancing at the 1971 ball. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Although the Vienna Opera Ball is taking a big step in allowing Grau and Klopfer to join this year's procession, the pair will still have to conform to the strict dress code and choreography set-out before them. 

"I'm non-binary," Grau said. "I just felt more comfortable imagining myself in a suit."

"To be honest," chimed in Klopfer, "I've been to many balls before and I very much like wearing a ball gown. And I have the longer hair.

"Today we received the tutorial for our hairstyle … and I think my hair right now is like the bare minimum on which you could build this hair style."

Grau is fitted for the ball in a men's suit shop. (Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images)

When it comes to the choreography, the dancers are confident they can do anything the opposite-sex couples can. The ball introduced a lift last year, which has been a source of concern for some, but Grau and Klopfer say they aren't fazed by it.

"We've been dancing together for a while and I think we would manage to do the one they did last year," Klopfer said. "So yeah, I think it's fun." 

Klopfer has a background in gymnastics and rhythmic gymnastics. (Submitted by Iris Klopfer)

Not everyone has responded with enthusiasm to the addition of an LGBTQ couple to Vienna's Opera Ball.

Austrian property magnate Richard Lugner, whose past ball guests have included celebrities Sophia Loren and Kim Kardashian, has been outwardly critical of the decision.

He told the newspaper Der Spiegel that "destroying the ball's reputation should be avoided."

But on the whole, Grau and Klopfer have said they haven't faced significant backlash, and that their inclusion in this year's ball is in keeping with a tradition of change.

"Balls used to be about introducing your children who were now eligible to be married, to then marry them off — which isn't the purpose of the Viennese Opera Ball anymore, " Grau said. 

"The tradition has already changed several times in the past. So, why not change it again?"

Written by Sarah Claydon. Interviews produced by Samantha Lui. 



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