by Vivian I. Zumstein
Apprehension hangs in the air as 74 young children and their parents mill about St. Pauls Episcopal Church in Prince Frederick. In contrast to the bitter cold of the January evening, it is hot and stuffy in the crowded vestibule. Dressed to the nines, little girls fidget with unfamiliar white gloves. Boys rotate their necks inside collared shirts and, when their parents arent watching, tug at the ties pressing against their throats. I cant breathe! wails one rebellious boy as his father snugs a loosened knot back up.
Laughter explodes. Oh, you laugh, chides Mason, perusing the room, But I have actually seen boys do this.
For the girls part, Mason makes it clear that they may give only one answer to the boy. Yes. There is yes and there is yes, says Mason. Heaving a huge sigh and rolling your eyes as you say yes is not acceptable. Think about how youd like to be answered by someone youve asked to dance.
Now the boys have to ask a girl to dance. A handful dash across the floor. These are actually the class biggest cowards. The rush is to get to a girl they know and can tolerate touching. Brothers become unusually fond of sisters when it is time to pick a dance partner.
Five solo boys slink onto the dance floor, trying to blend in with the couples. Five forlorn girls remain seated. Mason has anticipated this. Just the way a cowboy cuts cattle from a herd, she excises the reluctant boys from the crowd and supervises as they ask these girls to dance.
To put the kids at ease, Mason combines dances with games. A popular one has the children changing partners when she says, Foxtrot. A moment later, she stops the music. Any child without a partner gets eliminated. The last couple remaining wins. This game has normally reticent boys releasing one girl and scrambling to grab another, all amid shrieks of laughter. Nothing like a little competition to relieve inhibitions.
Practice Makes Perfect
By comparison, the older class is sophisticated. The children are more mature and have experience interacting with adults, but they still need polish. With many of these kids in the throes of puberty, the opposite sex no longer repels. It intrigues.
Why pay to send kids to cotillion year after year? Etiquette skills must be practiced to be mastered. Cotillion is not a one-time fix for social graces any more than one season of peewee football prepares a child to star on the high school team.
These older children demonstrate greater social ease, but veterans still stand out. They exude self-confidence and many of them, even the boys, have developed into good ballroom dancers. The kids no longer look at their feet; instead partners chat during dances. Having mastered basic steps, they enjoy learning new, flashy moves. Jitterbugging, a few couples strut their stuff with the windmill, hop-slide and ladys underarm turn.
The best dancers, girls or boys, always get cut in on. In cotillion, girls as well as boys learn how not to be left out.
Inclusive and Effective
Just as the average child does not choose to eat vegetables, the average child does not choose to attend cotillion. Parents more accurately mothers choose to send them.
Some fathers resist. They think its sissy, reports Szot. They fail to see the long-term value. Also the word cotillion can elicit visions of privilege, stuffy old boy networks and elitism. However, nothing could be further from the truth with Jon D. Williams Cotillions.
Families in Tidewater Cotillion represent a spectrum of Southern Maryland. Children come from both private and public schools, and several children are home schooled. One school, Bay Montessori in Lexington Park, includes the cost of cotillion in its tuition.
As children grow into poised young people, parents who send their children to cotillion, often over their offsprings initial protest, see long-term results.
Employment websites abound with advice on how to nail an interview: Make eye contact, give a firm handshake, speak clearly and act confidently. The same websites exhort job applicants to avoid being nervous.
Laura McCrea, a regional field sales recruiter who lives in Owings, has been conducting job interviews for over five years. The first impression at a job interview is critical. Professional appearance and polish are so, so important, she says.
Young people today really surprise me. Many dress unprofessionally and have a lackadaisical attitude. Even if a young man wears a suit, I can tell if hes wearing it for the first time. Some give me a limp handshake, others slouch in the chair or ramble when answering questions, she continues. They havent been taught to deal with a structured social setting and their nervousness takes over.
Cotillion graduates dont have to think about handshakes or eye contact. These actions become second nature. If they interview over a meal, they will not be baffled when confronted with an array of cutlery. Instead they can focus on convincing the interviewer that they are right for the job. Possessing such skills gives a young person a competitive edge.
When I am conducting an interview, says McCrea, I am really looking for what we call quiet competence. That is something that stems from being self-confident.
Tested at the Table
Parents, too, have been known to learn from Masons lessons.
At table etiquette class, children eye with suspicion the array of unfamiliar cutlery arranged on the table in front of them. Many have never dealt with more than a knife, fork and spoon. Mason explains the use of more of these than her students ever imagined. She always gets a rise when she gets to the fork for escargot. Anybody know what escargot is? she asks.
At least one child in each class thrills to inform the rest that, Its snails! Ohhhh gross! the kids react in unison. A few younger boys punctuate the response with gagging noises.
More common and troublesome than this little fork is who owns what on the table. Mason has a trick to solve that problem.
How can you remember which bread plate belongs to you? she asks. Put your hands in front of you, she directs. Now touch the tips of your forefingers to the tips of your thumbs to make circles on both hands. Keep your other fingers straight. Do you see that youve made a lowercase b and d? Your left hand is b for bread plate and d on your right is for drink.
This trick works. Last year, I went to a very formal dinner where the hotel squeezed 12 people into tables for 10. One place setting flowed into the next. After a pause, a brave soul ventured, I wonder which glass is whose? I laughed, held out my hands and taught them all to make bs and ds. Twelve middle-age adults sat making circles with their thumbs and forefingers to identify their plates and glasses. Everybody loved it. Nobody accidentally ate a neighbors bread.
Mother Knows Best
Denise Almaraz of Huntingtown wants those advantages for her two children, Luke (10) and Rebekah (eight). She works in information technology for an insurance company, and her husband Ralph is an independent electrician. In their solid middle-class family, Ralph surprised her by not resisting. His only response was, Luke is going to kill you.
Luke was a hard sell. I thought it would be awful, he says. I was really nervous at the first class because I didnt know what to do and I didnt want to dance. An excellent student and a standout athlete, Luke hates dressing up; hes shy and hes uncomfortable in new situations all excellent reasons to attend cotillion.
Almaraz first tried to bribe him, but she admits that it finally came down to authority: I am the mother and you are the child.
Rebekah was just the opposite. I didnt have to convince her. I told her she was going to princess classes, jokes Almaraz.
Almarazs reasons for sending her children mirror those of other parents. I wanted to introduce them to culture, etiquette and manners, she says. They need to learn how to behave in public and to be good, mature citizens. Thoughtfully, she adds, I want to be proud of them.
Grandmother Martina Fowler of Dunkirk volunteered to pay for her granddaughter, Krista Keisu (nine), to attend. I thought it would help her overcome her shyness, explains Fowler. But there is so much more. I was totally unprepared for all the bonus gifts. She cites children relating to the opposite sex, considering others feelings and learning basic ballroom steps.
Krista is less enthusiastic than her grandmother, but she, too, sees the benefits. I didnt want to come at first, Krista admits. But the first class wasnt too bad. I didnt like the part where the boys had to pick girls to dance. But I liked dancing the cucaracha and I like dressing up. Ive learned a lot. Im already more comfortable.
The Belligerent Boy
The more resistant a child is to cotillion, the more the child needs the training. Resistance often stems from a discomfort with new situations. Better come to grips now than over a string of unsuccessful job interviews.
Mason excels in winning over the reluctant youngster, but every now and then a truly belligerent child surfaces. A few years ago one turned up at Tidewater Cotillion.
The 11-year-old boy carpooled with another family. At the door, the mother driving gave her three boys a quick going over: brushing off a little lint here, straightening a tie there. When she reached to snug up this boys tie, he swatted her hand away, wrenched his tie knot three inches from his neck and fastened her with a malevolent glare, daring her to tighten it.
The boy tried to evade the receiving line, too, but eventually he shuffled through, tie knot dangling, eyes studying his feet and fists shoved deep into his trouser pockets. He ignored the chaperones, refused to escort a lady and sat on his chair sideways, his back to the class.
Mason overlooked his truculence. She launched into her comedy routine, and the class responding with predictable mirth. After a very funny line and peals of laughter, the rebels shoulders quivered. With visible effort, he stilled his body into sullenness.
Mason continued on a roll, with the class eating out of her hand. Again and again, the boy struggled to stifle laughs. He battled for another 10 minutes before capitulating. Turning in his seat, he watched as well as listened.
Now in his third year of cotillion, this boy looks forward to the classes. Not only Mason won this Round.
On February 28, Tidewater Cotillion students show their stuff.
When the younger class teaches their parents to dance, ambitious pint-sized sons try to pull off the underarm turn with their 5'8" mothers. They find the side chassé works much better. Daughters giggle as they dance with their dads.
The older students put their knowledge to the test with a dinner party at the Old South Country Club in Lothian. The children pair up, the boys escorting and seating the girls on their right. Under dimmed lights and in a formal setting, they deal with an assortment of cutlery. The veterans again stand out. When the salad arrives, they know to start with the outside fork. New students watch and emulate.
Pleasant conversation fills the club. These kids are at ease. Only one surprise arrives. Many new students dont know what to make of the sorbet delivered between the salad and main course. Its to cleanse your palate, silly, explains a girl. Everyone eats it. Its sweet and its not escargot.
The kids make Mason proud. When a girl excuses herself, all the boys stand for her departure and her return. Chaperones applaud.
After dinner, when these students dance with parents, height mismatches are fewer. Boys whirl and twirl their mothers across the floor, and dads get left in the dust.
Nicholas Bowen, a sixth grader in his fifth year of cotillion, admits he likes cotillion. Lots of my friends from school have to come. I like the dancing, especially the jitterbug. I also like meeting new people.
Another boy, a seventh grader and a cotillion veteran, wants to remain anonymous. I dont want my friends at school to think Im a sissy for liking cotillion. They think its stupid, but I like it, he confesses.
New students Luke and Krista have divergent opinions. Krista, like most girls, is a convert. I definitely want to come back next year. I want to be more comfortable when I get older dancing with boys, she says.
Luke struggles. It takes more than one season for the average boy to feel comfortable, even longer to admit that he might enjoy cotillion.
Well, I might come back next year, he hedges. Dancing with girls wasnt too bad, but it wasnt great, reserving enthusiasm for the drinks and cookies.
Lukes fate, of course, rests with his mother. Almaraz says she has already seen improvements in how he responds to adults. She wants for her children the self-confidence she has seen in cotillion veterans, but shell have to decide if the fight is worth it.
Fowler, however, has no reservations. She plans to pay cotillion tuition for both Krista and next year for younger brother Zachary.
Manners Around the Bay
Cotillion is slowly coming to Bay Country. Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts offers Cotillion with A Twist every other Friday night for five sessions January through March for children in fifth through eighth grade. This year, third and fourth graders attended Mini Cotillion on two Saturday evenings in January.
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Last updated March 12, 2004 @ 1:37am.