Franny’s first cotillion was earlier this week. A couple of years ago, before she was old enough to attend, she would beg to go, on those first Mondays of the month, to watch an older friend practice the waltz and the fox trot. It was sort of like she was in “pre-cotillion.” She was enthralled by the sea of party dresses filling up the ballroom, and couldn’t wait until she was old enough to be one of the big girls.
Although you do have to know a Patroness who will invite your child to attend, our cotillion is pretty progressive as cotillions go. Our Patroness, in fact, is African-American. In my day, there was absolutely no color, and virtually no Jews, although Mindy Goldfarb was invited because her family had built a wing on a museum.
While Franny’s cotillion still has its share of hoity-toityness — lots of ladies who lunch from the Old Money part of town, who come all blinged-out to watch their progeny learn the fox trot — it is far more egalitarian than what I remember from my dancing school days. At least one-third of the kids are minorities: African-American, Asian, Latino. And while there are a lot of dresses from Nordstrom’s, there are just as many from Target.
The dance party is held in an historic theater, built around an elegant courtyard full of white iceberg rose bushes, flanked by columns.
Franny was suddenly reticent before we went, saying only that she didn’t want to have to dress up, which I knew must be code for “I don’t want to hold some boy’s sweaty hands.”
Still, when we entered the ballroom, she immediately shooed me away and deposited herself in a gaggle of girls, pleased to bump into homies from sleepaway camp.
We were one of the first to arrive, and when I watched her walk onto the ballroom floor to shake hands with the Master of Ceremonies, I started to cry. It wasn’t just nostalgia, or pride, putting the sting behind my eyes: it was also witnessing a tradition that Franny is now stepping into.
Taking her place in society — in the best sense of that word.
As much as I rail against social injustice and elitism, I was raised by southern parents and I am a stickler for gestures of what I consider to be true class: speedy thank you notes, eye contact, firm handshakes, asking people questions about themselves. I want my daughter to cultivate social graces — not to head-start her on an antiquated Mrs. Degree track, but to move her into the world with confidence, empathy, integrity, and respect. For herself and for others.
* * *
Two hundred fifth-grade boys and girls sat in chairs lined up around the perimeter of the room. The girls learned to cross their legs at the ankles. The boys, adorable in their J. Crew suits and ties, one size too small or one size too big, went to get the girls juice at the banquet table and walked back veerrry carefully, trying not to spill.
The Master of Ceremonies reminded the tweens of the importance of the pre-social-function “Five Brushes” (hair brush, toothbrush, lint brush, and two other brushes that now escape me), and protocol for acknowledging The More Important Person. Meaning: you introduce yourself to President Obama before the cute girl on your left.
Couples lined up on the floor, arms crossed at the crook of the elbow, the boys inevitably a head shorter than the girls. They proceeded in a circle, stopping along the way to practice stepping to the right, then the left, then turning, before they switched partners, shook hands and learned new dance steps.
The order and ritual of Cotillion makes kids fall in line — in a good way. Any errant whispering was silenced by the pointed eyebrow-raise of one of the adults patrolling the floor. Disappointment over being paired with an undesirable dance partner was squelched to a barely discernible internal grimace. Focusing attention on etiquette and dance steps, enveloped by columns that lined the grand ballroom, wary of the watchful gaze of Cotillion floor monitors — all of this had the effect of eliciting the best in the children.
Parents hovered along the margins of the dance floor, taking pictures with their iPhones, videotaping with their iPads. All of us had the same heart-fluttery aura about us: joyful disbelief that our kids had grown up so fast, and pride for their emerging young adulthood.
Many of the parents I knew from different phases of my life, or was sure I knew but couldn’t remember how. There was the mom from preschool; the mom from yoga; the mom who is friends with my best friend; the mom whose daughter was in Franny’s baby group.
Amy and I lived in the same neighborhood when our youngest children were born, and our marriages blew up months apart. We both have ex-husbands who manage not to pay child support while living high on the hog. After the inevitable one-downing about who had the rawest post-divorce deal (“he just bought a $3 million house and pays no child support!” vs. “he’s been out of town for months, I have no idea when he’s coming back, and he contributes nothing towards childcare!”) we shifted our attention back to what really mattered.
Our daughters, gingerly dipping their toes into a luminous, beckoning sea of young adulthood, with its promise of forever love and fulfilled dreams. Watching Franny on the dance floor, a red balloon pressed between her chest and the chest of her waltzing partner, I couldn’t help imagine her, some moons ahead, in a cap and gown, then in a white sheath in the sand (she tells me she’s having a beach wedding), then clutching an infant to her breast.
And in my fantasy, all her choices are good ones. The right college. The right spouse. The right career. The courage of her convictions.
* * *
When Cotillion let out, boys and girls streamed out of the theater, across the road to the parking lot. Franny and I got in the car and I turned onto the street.
“Well?” I asked, still high from the hit off my daughter’s brilliant future. “What’d you think? How were the boys?”
She yanked off her gloves, grimacing as they fell into her lap.
“Their hands were really sweaty.”
Sharon Greenthal says
Traditions are so important – even the white gloves. Franny will take a lot of what she learns in cotillion and use it in the future. And hell to the yes on written thank-yous!
Love this! I hated Cotillion as I was the tallest girl by seemingly a foot. But I totally plan on sending my boys because those social graces matter. Love the red balloon…..
Lisa thomson says
That’s what the white gloves are for! Very sweet post, coming of age with class
Elizabeth Aquino says
That was perfect! My oldest boy did cotillion for three years, and now my younger one is doing it for the second time.
Gabi Coatsworth says
The image of the red ballon is priceless!
Matt Steiner says
Love this. Learning social graces/cues in adolescence is incredibly helpful. In spite of the classism that may underlie the ‘institution of cotillion’, I think it’s an incredibly valuable social tool that can be used and accessed by all types of families. Your daughter’s cotillion does it well! Thanks for sharing.
This is so beautiful, I love it! I did Cotillion and I loved and loathed it at the same time. Looking back now, I’m so happy that I did it. I still remember the Waltz and the Fox Trot too. It is important for our children to grow up with manners. I love that you emphasized this, I think it’s perhaps even more important today in our social media driven, wired existence where we don’t always interact face to face, and run the risk of forgetting how to do so.
I am not even sure cotillions exist on the West Coast… instead, we had 4-H. I did 4-H for home economics (and also for animals and sewing), which included a section on how to set the table (with a FULL place setting, multiple utensils, glasses, cups, saucers, etc), etiquette for various situations, and of course lots of cooking and household sewing. Super duper useful, all of it. And no white gloves.
Please explain to me this ‘red balloon’ of which you speak … ?
They keep a ballon pressed between their chests while they dance. It helps them learn to dance in sync and it’s also a game…the group who makes it the longest without losing the balloon wins a prize.
I remember dancing with a boy who always smelled like potatoes. And wishing I could wear hose instead of white anklets. And how I hated the gloves–they made my hands sweat. The dance teacher was gross and we (girls) dreaded being chosen to help him demonstrate a step. And I always thought the red balloon was to keep us from getting too close. These are wonderful memories that my mother gave me when she insisted I go to cotillion!