In the deserted ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on London’s Park Lane, Katerina, Julia, Taisija, Mariya and Saltana are practising their Viennese waltz one last time, Mail Online reports. It is one of many dances they have spent months perfecting in preparation for the glittering night in November when they will enter the Great Room on the arm of a dashing partner in front of 800 guests as an orchestra plays the ‘Polonaise’ from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
Today, the girls are trying out their steps in full costume – floor-length white bridal gowns, white gloves and tiaras. They laugh delightedly as acres of tulle and taffeta swish across the polished wooden floor. They are brought up short by the formidable Austrian Dr Elisabeth Smagin-Melloni, the organiser of the ball for which they are rehearsing. She corrects their hand positions (‘Palms up!’) and directs them to hold their heads ‘proud’, shoulders down and back, chins slightly raised.
She also inspects their attire: dresses must be white or cream, white gloves must reach the elbow and heels must be no more than two-and-a-half inches high. Tiaras are, of course, compulsory. Most girls today have also opted for discreet pendants and pearls (worth around £200,000), courtesy of Swiss jeweller Piaget, which is sponsoring the night along with Harrods, and loaned the girls their gems.
The scene could be straight out of the 1890s London Season – except that the girls have all arrived in black skinnies and spiked heels, glued to their Instagrams and chattering away in Russian. They are among 60 debutantes who were hand-picked from 200 applicants by Elisabeth’s committee (which includes her Russian husband Alexander Smagin and choreographer Leonid Pletnev) in preparation for the third annual Russian Debutante Ball.
They will dance, dine and raise money for charity alongside a sprinkling of celebrities including the ball’s patron Princess Olga Romanoff (great-niece of Tsar Nicholas II and now living in Kent), Princess Michael of Kent, her son Frederick Windsor and Siberian Strictly siren Kristina Rihanoff, who will attend as a guest of Pletnev, her former dance master.
The Bolshoi Ballet’s prima ballerina Evgenia Obraztsova will also perform. Debutante balls are often assumed to be a uniquely British tradition (our most famous being the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, dating back to the days of George III, when girls were presented to the queen to celebrate her birthday). However, in the early 19th century they were just as much of a fixture among the European and Russian aristocracy.
In Russia, the party stopped abruptly after the 1917 revolution, during which Tsar Nicholas was executed with his family. But interest in the tradition picked up again in the post-Communist 1990s. Now, as Russian nationals are scattered across the globe, Elisabeth has responded to an increase in demand for what she refers to as ‘a taste of Russian history and culture and a feeling of togetherness’.
Many debs are from Russia but several come from Ukraine, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan – even England. Foreign affairs are firmly off the agenda: ‘We unite nations and communities,’ says Elisabeth emphatically. ‘The ball is not the place to discuss politics.’With registration fees at a relatively modest £200, the ball is aimed at a new group emerging in the capital: upper middle class, highly educated, ambitious young women, largely from Russian-speaking countries.
The debs (who must be aged between 16 and 25) are charming, funny and intelligent. All speak several languages and have at least one degree from a top (usually British) university. They must have a job or be studying, and be able to answer questions on topics such as their favourite author or their country’s history. Should they also be beautiful?
‘This is not about looks,’ says Elisabeth. ‘I don’t want long-limbed idiots. But no elephants either! If a girl is 150 kilos then I’m sorry, but no.’ Applications to be a debutante (or a deb’s dance partner) closed in May and auditions took place in April in London and Moscow. ‘We look for nice, educated girls with good manners,’ says Elisabeth.
‘First impressions are everything. I don’t care whether their bag is from Prada or Marks & Spencer, but I don’t want girls chewing gum or with their hands in their pockets.’ Applicants’ Facebook profiles are also inspected and any with ‘half nude’ pictures are rejected instantly. The UK capital (dubbed ‘Londongrad’ because it is home to 150,000 Russian speakers) is the latest addition to the international roster of Elisabeth’s balls, staged in cities where Russians live in significant numbers, take their holidays or have historical links.
As well as London, they also take place in Moscow (naturally), Biarritz and Vienna, with plans to expand to Karlsbad, Marrakech and Montreux (where many Russian girls go to boarding school) next year. This year, the London ball is welcoming an English debutante, 24-year-old Helen Willis, a PhD student from Reading.‘Some of my friends helped out at last year’s event and it sounded incredible and completely unlike any other night out,’ she says.
‘They’ve captured the special sparkle that I hear the English debutante scene has lost. I’m not from a posh family so I’d never be able to go to an English debutante ball. ‘I love that the Russian one is much more inclusive.’ During the opening ceremony the girls will process down the ballroom’s sweeping staircase to take their positions for the ‘Polonaise’ and then perform another dance, which is kept under wraps until the night.
At the end of the ceremony they will dance to ‘The Waltz of the Flowers’ from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Any deb needing to brush up on her dance steps can sign up for a course of Russian Debutante Ball dance classes (at a cost of £350) with ex-Strictly pro Karen Hardy. The pressure is on to perfect their moves; at the final rehearsal, on the eve of the ball, Pletnev will be watching and any girl whose steps are not up to scratch will not be allowed to take part in the opening ceremony.
In perfect English, the girls lay out their ten-year career plans to be senior executives or run their own global businesses – while happy, for now, to practise curtseying in their bridal finery. Ukrainian debutante Julia Likhatska, who lives in Dalston, East London, and is on BP’s graduate programme, wishes she’d been born 200 years ago – but seems equally nostalgic about the recent closure of Shoreditch nightclub Plastic People.
They’re savvy shoppers, too. Nobody’s dress is designer – apart from one Amanda Wakeley gown, borrowed from the designer’s shop. A few of the girls have rented gowns, several have scoured the internet for bargains and one hopes to sell hers on Ebay after the ball. When Julia is asked who her tiara is by, she laughs and says, ‘Amazon! It was £15.’
With Ivan the Terrible vodka flowing, the evening could become raucous. But Elisabeth reassures me that ‘everyone has a good time – but it is very rare to see people drunk. ‘We have only put one person in a taxi – and he was Austrian. He couldn’t keep up with the Russians.’ Holding a Russian Debutante Ball in London may seem incongruous, but to the debs themselves it makes perfect sense.
‘London is the only place that feels like home – I love that you can do and be anything you like and nobody bats an eyelid,’ says Julia. ‘If you want to be a fairy-tale princess, you can be a fairy-tale princess. Just go for it.’