The Difference Between a Cotillion and a Debutante Ball

These are two important but different, Southern traditions—so don’t get them confused.

Debutante Ball
Photo: University of Southern Californi / Getty Images

It's no secret we Southerners love traditions, especially those that encourage participation from each generation as a rite of passage. So it shouldn't be surprising that two well-known coming-of-age traditions are closely associated with Southern culture: cotillions and debutante balls. Just the mention of either and visions of white gloves and young people dancing the foxtrot appear in our heads. These two events have a lot in common but are distinct occasions with different origins and purposes. In case you need a refresher, here's what sets them apart.

What is a Cotillion?

The word cotillion was first used in 18th-century France and England to describe a group dance, considered a forebearer of the square dance (à la the dancing in Pride and Prejudice). This specific dance was considered a good finale for any ball, which seems to translate well to its use today. Cotillion is typically a season of etiquette classes for middle-school-aged children that ends with a final dinner dance where they get to show off what they've learned.

Cotillion classes are understandably still prevalent in the South—they're an opportunity for children to learn all those manners and polite habits we highly value alongside their friends and classmates. Whether learning to give a firm handshake or dance the waltz, the skills taught in cotillion classes will come in handy throughout your life. Proud parents and teachers gather at the final event (often called the cotillion ball) to watch the participants demonstrate their table manners, conversation etiquette, and dance moves.

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What is a Debutante Ball?

While cotillions are more focused on teaching young people how to be respectful members of society, debutante balls mark the official joining of society once those children age into young adults. Depending on the town, debutante balls feature the "debut" of young ladies from ages 16 to 21 as official members of society.

Once considered to be a family's announcement that their daughter was of good breeding and marriageable age, today, the balls—although still steeped in tradition and rituals—are more about fostering community, supporting charity, and appreciating the maturation of teenagers into young adults.

Presented by their fathers and escorted by one or two young escorts of their choosing, young women make their "debut" to society. Debutante balls occur all across the United States (and even the world), but there is something distinctly Southern about them.

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