May I Have This Dance?

Japanese women flock to Austria to become princesses for a season.

(this article first appeared in the april 11-18, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

For at least part of every year, Makiko Krone is a princess. Dressed in a dramatic evening gown and escorted by a princely young man, she spends the winter waltzing her way through the regal balls in Vienna. By March, when the ball season ends, Krone—like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight—closes up her rented apartment in Vienna and returns to her ordinary life in Tokyo. There she helps arrange trips for other Japanese women eager to fulfill their dreams. "Any woman can be—and is—a princess," she insists.

Who says you have to be born into royalty? More and more Japanese women are paying to discover their inner princesses. For a minimum of $2,000, they can fly to Vienna, take dance lessons and even find dates for some of the grand balls that have dominated Austria's social scene for centuries. Several Japanese travel agents offer tour packages that include ball tickets; one dancing school there holds classes for some 100 Japanese visitors every season. Krone helps coordinate dance lessons, admission to the balls, and even local escorts; since 2000, she has arranged trips for about 100 Japanese—a few of them men—including some elderly enthusiasts of ballroom dancing, which is popular among Japanese seniors.

The Japanese visitors are often overwhelmed by the ballroom splendor. Colleagues Kazumi Terada, 26, and Naoko Seki, 30, who work together at a Tokyo consulting firm, were enchanted by the Opernball (the Opera Ball), Austria's largest and most glittery celebration, which they attended in February. "When the main doors opened up to expose the red carpet right in front of me, the view—all those people in gorgeous dresses, the music—it was mesmerizing," gushes Seki. Preparing for the dance was at least half the fun: Seki tried on 15 or 16 dresses at five shops, as well as shoes, gloves and jewelry. "It did feel like becoming a princess," she says.

Krone's first trip to the Opernball was some 10 years ago—but her love affair with such glitz goes back much further. Growing up middle-class in Tokyo, she always had a weakness for fluffy, candy-colored dresses and big hairdos with ribbons. "The Rose of Versailles," a popular girls cartoon series that follows the lives of Marie Antoinette and other fictional characters during the French Revolution, fueled her interest in European high society. Still, that interest remained little more than fantasy—until she watched a TV program featuring a big Viennese ball one day. "It opened my eyes that there was such a world," she recalls.

When she finally arrived on the floor of the Opera, she thought, "This is where I belong." By now Krone has been to about 50 balls, big and small. But it's not just the dresses, music and elegant atmosphere that attract her: "European men are much more gentlemanly than Japanese," she says. "The way they help you out of a coat, open doors for you and kiss you on both cheeks—that's what makes you feel like a real princess." Glass slippers can help, too.

(c) newsweek

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