Czech teens flock to learn ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons which are gentler rites of a bygone era.
Though it may get less press than Vienna and its annual Opera Ball, Prague is a city of balls in a nation of dancers who cling to this courtly ritual born under the Austro-Hungarian empire that even communism could not kill.
Advertisement"I registered because it's a tradition here. My parents and my grandparents also went to dancing courses when they were my age," said 16-year-old Eliska shyly.
She is one of 200 youths kitted out in fancy dress and twirling under huge crystal chandeliers at a municipal palace in the capital's elegant residential district of Vinohrady.
"Waltz? Remember that's one-two-three, one-two-three," their teacher cried out.
Eliska is wearing high heels and a dove-grey strapless cocktail dress, bought for the occasion. Her young partner, like all the other boys, has donned a suit, bow tie and white gloves for the occasion.
The programme includes fox trot, two-step, polka, mazurka, cha-cha and Viennese and English waltzes, but also a brief course in good manners - how to hold a glass at a cocktail party, how to dress for a banquet, how to blend in with the society, what flowers to buy for your dancing partner.
"In the Czech Republic, dancing lessons are perceived as elementary social education," said Ruzena Chladova, who has been in charge of the prestigious Vinohrady school for 25 years.
The course comprising 10, two-hour lessons once a week, costs up to 5,300 Czech korunas (about 215 euros, 278 dollars), roughly a quarter of the average monthly wage.
For such a sacrifice, parents can chaperon their offspring to the picturesque neo-Baroque ballrooms and, sipping from a glass, assess their progress.
Only once have waltz-crazy Prague residents been banned from dancing during the traditional "ball season" -- which runs through the winter and generally winds up in April -- when the Nazis imposed a curfew in 1942 after Czechs killed Reinhard Heydrich, a "Reich protector" and one of the SS elite under Hitler, according to 63-year-old Karel Oplt, a dance teacher and history buff.
The lessons are not limited to the posher parts of the capital. All towns and cities across the country offer such courses.
"The programme is mostly the same and they always end with a grand ball for the debutantes," says Viktor Sanc, who heads one of the six ballroom dancing schools in the southern Czech city of Brno.
The routine has not budged since the Hapsburg era - boys and girls stand in two lines facing each other, cross the floor to find a partner, then stroll around the ballroom in pairs, which is known as a "promenade".
At the instructor's behest, they repeat the basic steps, copying the teacher's movements while trying hard not to step on their partner's feet. During the break, the students have a drink and chat.
"It's a bit tough, but it's fun," said Mariana, a 16-year-old enrolled at the Broucek dancing school in central Prague.
Though still strong, some say the tradition is slowly fading among teens as Czech society changes. One of these is Oplt, who runs a dance school founded by his father after World War II.
"We used to have more teenagers during the communist period, when ballroom dancing courses were one of the few leisure activities permitted by the regime," he said.
But ballroom dancing has become increasingly trendy among adults.
Two TV channels posted record ratings after broadcasting dance contests featuring celebrities, and private companies are now buying dance courses for employees as a perk or team-building exercise.
One such firm is the Czech branch of British group Tyco Healthcare, a healthcare product company that offered ballroom dancing for its mostly foreign employees here.
"The idea was to show our employees what is common in the Czech Republic," said Tyco chief executive Helena Labaiova.
Charmed by the experience, many signed up for more lessons to "impress" colleagues at the grand balls in the Czech capital, she said.
The Vinohrady palace alone hosts about 50 balls each season, both for its own school and for private clients, including travel agencies and firms like Tyco.
"In recent years, it has become fashionable for foreign companies to organise a ball in a prestigious hall every year," said the palace's director for commercial services Ivan Horak.
This continues to feed the dance schools with customers, though teacher Ruzena Chladova said while staff employees sign up for group courses, the top managers worried about faux pas prefer private lessons.
In contrast, Czech teenagers at ease with the tradition care little about dance-floor flaws and laugh each time they stumble.
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