There’s a reason it’s a Southern tradition.
For many who grow up in the South, cotillion classes are a rite of passage. Mama sees them as a way for little Bobby to learn social graces; little Bobby sees them as a torturous excuse for Mama to make him wear his Sunday clothes on a weekday.
While different cotillion programs school their students in different things (some blend ballroom dance instruction with lessons in table etiquette, while others focus on dance), the overarching principle of cotillion classes is the same: Students are taught how to be respectful, polite members of their communities. It’s about looking someone in the eye when you speak to her, holding the door for the person walking in behind you, and asking someone who’s standing alone at a party to dance.
It’s this dedication to good manners and common courtesy, perhaps, that’s made cotillion such a mainstay of Southern culture, where commitment to gracious behavior reigns supreme. For children, cotillion is another place where the manners and etiquette that Mama teaches at home can be publicly practiced and reinforced.
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From fourth through seventh grades, fall through spring, I spent my Wednesday evenings in an historic society hall downtown, clad in a tea-length dress, white gloves, and cream tights (going bare-legged was not allowed). Each week, I’d spend an hour shuffling through the steps of the waltz, the lindy, and the fox trot with about 75 or so other 4th graders, while our primly dressed leaders would call the steps on a ‘50s microphone to the tunes of some old vinyl records.
While the matriarchs who ruled our local cotillion were brazen in their efforts to teach us pre-teens the art of ballroom dance, they taught us plenty of other lessons on social graces in sneakier, more subtle ways. From greeting us outside the ballroom with a handshake and “hello” to serving us little cups of Sprite from silver trays and special-occasion molasses cookies during our ten-minute class breaks, our cotillion instructors led by example, demonstrating through their own actions how to treat and serve others well.
These days, I’m not much for cream tights or crinoline-lined dresses, but I’m still a champion of the lessons I learned on those Wednesday nights at cotillion. After all, good manners and a little ballroom dance know-how will always be in style.