This story doesn’t have stepsisters, a handsome prince or a fairy godmother. But an ordinary girl does get to go to a ball. I was spending a semester in Vienna, Austria, as a student, and I was eager to experience everything the city had to offer. So when the opportunity arose, I spent an evening living out my favorite fairy tale: Cinderella.
Every winter, while the U.S. has a multitude of televised red-carpet award shows, Austria has a season of balls. And they’re not just for the rich and famous. These are balls put on by professional associations, extravagant annual celebrations for everyone from tradesmen to businessmen. Most of the balls take place during carnival season, in January and February. But since most of us students were only in Vienna for a semester and would be gone before the new year, our guide at the school informed us of a ball that was scheduled in November. Armed with this information, I marked my calendar and set out to get myself a ticket.
I was given an address at which to ply my request. It was a small office in a corporate building, and the woman inside was a bit confused as to how I found out about this particular ball, but she gave me a receipt and my instructions. I next took the receipt to a bank to pay for and receive the actual ticket. The bank was old and marble with high ceilings and ironwork. They didn’t care who I was, simply taking my 25 euros and giving me what I came for: a key to an adventure.
On the night of the ball, I dressed carefully in the only dress I had with me and made my way to the place where the event was being held. I arrived, not in a gilded carriage like the one I had seen on display at a museum, but by streetcar and subway. The building had columns and strings of white lights that glistened off the river. Inside, a uniformed doorman took my ticket and handed me a heart-shaped tin of candies decorated with a cartoon of the tradesman whose ball this was. It was the chimney-sweeps’ ball. The entrance hall was full of women in beautiful formal gowns with their husbands, presumably the chimney-sweeps. I, of course, was hideously under dressed, but no one noticed me. I pushed through the crowd to the ballroom. My ticket was not for the dinner or a seat at a table, so I took a few pictures of the elegant setting and wandered into the adjoining room.
After buying myself something to drink and hold onto, I secured a standing table and settled in to observe the festivities. I was in the room with the bar; people were milling about, greeting each other before the event officially began. Looking around, I saw through a glass door some young women in white dresses and young men in what must have been formal chimney-sweep uniforms. This was not just a trade association ball; there were debutantes! At 9 p.m. the master of ceremonies took to the podium and the guests seated themselves at tables. I moved into the doorway to watch the proceedings. The MC welcomed everyone and made his acknowledgements to the event contributors. Then it was time for the debutantes.
About 20 girls with their uniformed escorts processed onto the dance floor with their uniformed escorts, each girl holding a rose. Recorded orchestral music played and the couples began a stately 17th century dance, which they had obviously spent hours rehearsing to get the choreography just right. Starry-eyed, I whipped out my tiny digital camera and took a video. But this was only the beginning. After that dance had finished, it was time for the Viennese waltz. To my delight, just like in the movies, the couples all rotated in one large circle together as each pair spun ’round and ’round. At some point the music changed and the guests at the tables joined in the circle. This was what I had hoped for: a glimpse into elegant society, a taste of magic. When the opening dances were over and the pop band hired for the evening began to play, I snuck back through the entrance hall, retrieved my coat, and headed home, not wanting the spell to break.
A few weeks later, I was walking in the city when I saw two young men in caricature-perfect chimney-sweep costumes, complete with oversized brushes and coils of rope. I grinned, remembering the ball. As it turns out, fairy tales are real, one just has to know where to look for them; though perhaps it is easier to find them in a city as old and storied as Vienna.