(CNN) — Vienna ball season.
For many, the very words may conjure images of the uptight and upright plow-horsing through rigid waltz maneuvers and stilted conversations that ... zzzzzzzz.
The reality is far different.
Dance parties like the winter-long ball season in Vienna don't last for centuries because they're dull and stodgy.
They last because they're a blast, at their best a spectacle of music, dance, drink and high-octane experience.
It's true, with debutantes in white dresses, waltzing couples and formal attire, Vienna's balls might seem like a rarefied world off-limits to the uninitiated.
Ball season, however, is anything but stuffy.
The some 450 balls held in the city make it the highlight of winter for the Viennese -- balls are typically rip-roaringly good.
The opening ceremonies are a stage production in and among themselves.
Attendees are dazzled by famous singers, prima ballerinas, acrobats, dance numbers, songs and whatever else hosts can put on the program.
After the opening ceremony, guests dance to a variety of music including, but not limited to, salsa, jazz, techno, blues, and, of course, classical music.
Many balls run until 4 a.m.
Up all night
At midnight there's another show to entertain the guests, and after that, it's time to dance the quadrille.
This is a messy dance of swinging, bouncing, smashing bodies that ensures a breathless laugh every time.
When a ball finally comes to a close around 4 a.m., it's time to stagger to whichever coffee house has opened its door at this absurd hour.
There are many.
When the late winter sun rises, it's time to finally fall into bed.
Viennese balls are among the most authentic local experiences a visitor to the Austrian can participate in.
Locals plan ball attendance with precision.
Which balls they should attend this season?
Who to go with?
How many to attend?
Balls are also a great way to get into sections of buildings normally closed to the public to see dazzling displays of imperial interior design.
One rule: Dress the part
Though balls are a lot of fun, there's one rule that must be followed: dress code.
Men must be in tuxedos or even sometimes formal tails.
Women must wear floor-length gowns.
If the dress code isn't followed, ball goers may be turned away at the door.
Other than that, there's no real etiquette beyond having fun and not stepping on too many toes while dancing.
The opening ceremony is even a casual affair, with the Viennese talking and laughing throughout.
Most seasoned Viennese ignore the opening ceremony entirely and come after it's over or stand in another room to socialize.
The rest of the ball is a buzz of chatting, eating, laughing and dancing in the most casual, relaxed way.
One needn't have any knowledge of actual ballroom dance. People swing around on the floor however they wish.
Only a few of the Viennese really know how to dance.
Anything goes when it comes to dancing at Vienna's balls.
Ball season starts during the Austrian Carnival, on November 11, or better put, on 11.11 of each year.
The high season is January and February with balls being held in May or even June.
Balls vary in expense and experience.
Out of the 450 balls each year that Vienna hosts, the following stand out:
The Vienna Philharmonic Ball is one of the most elegant, with Viennese high society attending, including the president of Austria.
A high point is the famed Vienna Philharmonic, which performs during the opening ceremony.
Bosendorferstrasse 12, 1010 Vienna
This is one of the top five balls in Vienna, with more than 5,000 guests in attendance.
It's hosted each year in the Imperial Palace, the Hofburg.
The imperial ceremonial room, where the emperor once received guests, is the most beautiful, with white marble and gold chandeliers.
Hofburg - Michaelerkuppel Vienna
Also one of the top five balls in Vienna, the BonBon lives up to sweet expectations.
It's hosted at the Vienna Concert House by the chocolatiers of the city.
Chocolate can be purchased at this ball in absurd amounts.
Wiener Konzerthaus - Lothringerstrasse 20
Le Grand Bal (Emperor's Ball) is hosted at the Hofburg on New Year's Eve.
Expensive and touristy, it's fun and filled with photo ops, but not the most interesting ball to attend.
Hofburg - Michaelerkuppel Vienna; +43 1 587 36 66 214
This is the most famous ball, though with its big show of international celebrities, critics call it tacky and complain about the media circus around it.
On the plus side, it's big and famous because there's an undeniable see-and-be-seen energy surrounding the whole spectacle.
Opernring 2, 1010 Vienna
The antithesis of Viennese balls, this is a mix of a Broadway theater production and West Hollywood on Halloween night.
The ball is a fund-raising event for AIDS charities and is attended every year by former President Bill Clinton.
Dress code is either a costume with as little clothing as possible or black tie.
City Hall, Friedrich-Schmidt-Platz 1, Vienna; +43 1 595 56 00
If packing a tuxedo or a ball gown seems like a strain on suitcase space, you can always rent proper attire.
Shopping for ball gowns can be fun. A good store to visit is Peek & Cloppenburg in the Inner City (Karntner Str. 29, Vienna; +43 1 8904888 0).