The Viennese Winter Ball: Making music matter with Maya, Nura and Kellylee Evans

Kellylee Evans, Nura and Maya are all taking part in the annual Viennese Winter Ball. Photo: Peter Robb

Kellylee Evans knows all about the kind of connections and community that music and dance can build.

Sometimes it takes her to surprising places, for example, the annual Viennese Winter Ball.

She sang at the annual event last year and was impressed by the pomp, circumstance and community support, she said in an interview. She came away thinking her daughters Maya and Nura might enjoy it too.

So this year all three will be at the event which will feature traditional Viennese dances with music by the Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra, OrKidstra, the Junior Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra, Maria Krstic, the Canterbury Choir and Jazz Ensemble with whom Kellylee will sing.

The proceeds from the ball help support music programs for youth delivered by Music and Beyond, OrKidstra, and Junior Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra.

The tradition of the Vienna Opera Ball dates back to the 18th century. The Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II ordered ballrooms be opened to a wider community. A version of this event was started in Ottawa in 1996 and it has been officially sanctioned by the Austrian Government. In 2015, the organizers of the Music and Beyond festival took on the presentation of the event.

Part of the tradition is the introduction of 30 debutantes and cavaliers to the adult world. In many ways this is an old school celebration. There is no doubt a perception that this is for wealthy elites. However, the current version of the Ball encourages high school students from across the city to participate. There are young people from 10 different schools such as Merivale, Colonel By, Immaculata, Canterbury along with students from Ashbury and Elmwood. Maya and Nura are both students at Glebe High School. There is also one Carleton University student.

“We didn’t really know too much about the idea of the Ball except from old books,” Maya said in an interview.

So why sign up?

“I was really interested when I found out where the money was going. My family has been very involved in OrKidstra for many years and being able to give back to an organization that helps my family and has really been part of my life for so long was really awesome.

Maya is finishing up her high school this year.

“I have to do a few courses to finish.” She said she has been slowed down by a “frustrating” concussion. Still, “it’s always fun to get to events like this and be with kids my own age. and learn something new.

Maya used to play the clarinet in OrKidstra, but the pressure caused by a wind instrument was playing havoc with her concussion so she switched to the double bass.

These days her health is improving and she’s getting back into the swing again.

“I’m doing more to take back my life. I wanted to stay in music and so I started the double bass.” At the time OrKidstra needed another double bass player.

“I don’t know why I had to pick the biggest instrument in the orchestra.” Still she likes it.

In addition to having a good time, the cavaliers and debutantes have to learn how to waltz so they are all taking lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio.

“We are all there in sweats and regular person clothes. It’s fun to think that soon we will be doing these same dances. I’ll be honest part of me wanted the big princess dress. I can’t lie,” Maya said.

Her younger sister is a debutante in waiting. So she’s watching and learning. Nura is involved n OrKidstra too where she plays an oboe donated by the NAC Orchestra’s Chip Hamann. She’s even learned how to make her own double reeds.

As a deb in waiting “I’m basically learning. I’m not quite as involved in the process yet. I haven’t begun to learn how to waltz, but” she has some grounding in partner dancing.

Nura knows how to swing dance — she’s at St. Joseph’s Parish Church every week taking part.

Nura holds up The Dress. Photo: Peter Robb

Both Maya and Nura have a Dress. Maya’s is still being tailored but Nura’s is a cute little white dress.

“I am lucky to have gotten this dress. We wouldn’t normally be able to afford one like this.”  She’s gotten her hands on a dress from another dancer. “It’s short and smooth, just above the knee. It’s very pretty.”

Kellylee says she supports the effort of the Ball organizers to reach out into the wider community.

“Everybody has a certain sense of what the debutante ball is. I think the intention is to change it up and make it something different.”

She said she is open to honouring the tradition and helping make it open to everyone.

The idea of a debutante ball is a very western European, very white, very old school, very upper class thing. “Everything we are not,” Kellylee said. Still she believes there can be value in this kind of coming of age event if you can make it relevant.

Her wish for her daughters is to expose them to other cultures and she believes it’s important for the other debutantes and cavaliers to have the same experience.

“It’s so important because otherwise you just go though life with a blindfold on in your own lane.

Maya has told her friends at Glebe and their reaction is “A debutante ball?” But then she explains:

“It’s all going to a good cause and to really great programs that we want to keep in our community and we really want to support. They are bringing it to different cultures and people of different backgrounds and that is something we want to support in our community,” Maya added.

“When we said we were going to a debutante ball, people were kind of taken back, but fun is fun,” Kellylee said. “Honestly there is a moment in the show when the young people go into the crowd and dance with some of the guests and it’s the best.

“When you get live music and live dancing together, there is really nothing like it.”

If you’re interested in learning more, including about tickets please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.