The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned at Junior Cotillion in Talladega, Alabama
Here's a hint—it has nothing to do with ballroom dancing or table manners.
I learned the Foxtrot in 5th grade. And it was not at my own free will. At a time before I'd familiarized myself with highlights and had yet to reap the benefits of braces, my mother was forcing me to better myself in other ways. Primarily through Junior Cotillion classes. Every other Tuesday night, for what I remember as an entire year (but was probably only actually a couple of months), my mother made me put on one of my shoulder-padded church dresses, and then broke out the hairspray to hold my feathered bangs in place. Then, we'd swing by the McLain's house, to pick up my best friend, Megan before driving 20 minutes to a municipal building in Talladega, Alabama that just so happened to have a space big enough to pass off as a ballroom.
Among table manners, polite party conversation, and appropriate—and inappropriate—hemlines for ladies, ballroom dancing was part of the curriculum. Normally, moving to music in public was a non-issue for my 11-year-old self. I'd been taking ballet, tap, and jazz classes at Judy Rochelle's School of Dance in my hometown of Childersburg, Alabama since the age of four. The problem was that ballroom dancing, unliked the shuffle ball change I perfected in tap class, required an element that I wasn't so comfortable with: boys. Whose idea was it to painfully stick awkward middle-schoolers in a ballroom and teach them how to dance? That person is cruel and twisted. On the bright side, Megan and I had plenty to giggle over on the ride home. Our favorite topic of back seat whispers was a fellow cotillion student named Carter who was a solid 6 inches shorter than both of us, had a bowl cut, and owned a suit that wore him—not the other way around. Nonetheless, we were both smitten—despite the fact neither one us had spoken a word to him–or even made eye contact. While we were learning our dances, the teacher assigned us rotating partners. To our disappointment (or maybe it was relief) neither one of us were ever partnered with Carter.
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At our pseudo-graduation party, which was really an etiquette recital, we were supposed to sit at the table, napkins on laps, and chat over the weather just like we'd learned in class. The rules for dancing, however, shifted just a little bit. Instead of calling out partners, our teacher gave the girls dance cards and instructed that the boys ask the girls to dance. Upon acceptance, which wasn't really optional, we were supposed to write the boys names on our cards. Nothing scarier could have happened to the two of us in that moment. Now we waited to see if Carter had noticed us too. And if he had, neither one of us would know what to do. Megan and I accepted dance after dance from several other boys. Not Carter. And just about the time we accepted that Carter wasn't going to be on either of our dance cards that evening, something happened. I looked up and he was walking towards us. Was this real? It was. Panic. I could see the sheer terror in Megan's eyes too. And for a brief moment, I considered scribbling in my dance card, and pretending it was full so I wouldn't have to face this moment. But, I didn't. Carter walked right over, and asked both Megan and I to dance. We both accepted, happily jotted his name down, and looked over his head beaming at one another when we took our turns.
What I don't always remember: where every piece of silverware should be properly set; how exactly the foxtrot goes. What I won't forget: the first time my best friend and I danced with a boy we thought was cute. Junior Cotillion may not have turned me into the next Emily Post, but it did teach me a very valuable lesson that I'll pass along to you. Leave your dance card open to the experiences that terrify you, because those are the ones you'll never forget.