Cotillion Etiquette

Yes, there's proper etiquette for etiquette classes.

girls at cotillion
Photo: Kathryn Scott Osler

I looked down. My ankles were crossed; my gloved hands rested lightly in my lap; I hadn't spilled a drop of our 10-minute-break Sprite on my tea-length dress. Why, then, was my instructor gliding briskly towards me, her perfectly lipstick-ed lips pursed grimly in my direction? She fanned the trifold cotillion pamphlet under my nose, the glossy forest green type leaping off the cream cardstock.

"No. Black. Tights," she declared.

It didn't matter that it was winter and that my black tights looked better with the hand-me-down dress I was wearing. Rules were rules, and at the weekly cotillion class I attended from fourth through seventh grades, tights must always be white or cream or ivory. The ironclad dress code was a matter of etiquette, and I had officially fallen from grace.

That was the first (and last) time I broke the rules at cotillion.

While the word cotillion was originally used in 18th-century France and England to describe a group dance that often served as a finale for balls, these days and in the South, the term typically refers to etiquette classes for the elementary or middle school set. While some cotillions focus exclusively on ballroom dancing, others combine dancing and other matters of etiquette. The National League of Junior Cotillions, for instance, has chapters across the country, and they cover dancing, plus everything from proper telephone courtesy to sportsmanship.

But though topics of instruction vary amongst cotillion classes, the rules of cotillion etiquette are nearly universal.

On Appearance

The first rule of cotillion etiquette is to abide by the dress code of your local cotillion class. If the dress code requires gloves for girls and ties for boys and "no black tights," you should dress your child accordingly. Also, it's not enough to wrestle your ten-year-old son into a sportscoat on a Tuesday night: He must also have his hair combed, shoes polished, and fingernails clipped. Check for gum before your children tumble out of the car, too: Chewing gum at cotillion is a cardinal sin.

On Arrival

While this should go without saying, it's imperative to arrive on time to cotillion, as many classes start with a receiving line, in which students are expected to greet their instructors with a firm handshake and a "hello." If your daughter misses the receiving line, well, she might as well have skipped the whole class.

On Attendance

If your child can't make it to a cotillion class (barring unexpected circumstances, of course), be sure to tell the instructor in advance, as an even number of attendees is important for the ballroom dancing aspect of the course.

On Final Balls and Celebrations

With the conclusion of cotillion season typically comes a ball, where students are given the opportunity to demonstrate what they've learned to their parents, from the waltz to the Cha Cha. This is also a time for parents to set an example and exhibit their own good manners to their children: Dress appropriately; arrive on time; don't chew gum; skip photos with flash; and for the love of all that's holy, please don't text and foxtrot. Nobody's that good at multitasking.

Before there was Siri, there was Grandmama. And it turns out, that despite all Siri knows about the weather, the stock market, and the traffic on your way to work, Grandmama still knows best when it comes to just about everything else, from storytelling to good manners and pretty penmanship.

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