Southern Girl Academy: Cotillion

Students, I’ve been asked to school you in the fine art of the thrilling, torturous Southern tradition of cotillion. The best way I know how to convey to you the importance of this rite of passage for young Southern lads and ladies is to recount my own experiences in Little Rock Junior Cotillion in as vivid detail as I can muster without undoing all those years of counseling it took me to recover.

Little Rock Junior Cotillion was quite a big deal in those years, and it is still going strong today. Mrs. Ellen Butts founded the program in the 1950s as a method of teaching good manners, social graces and dance steps to children in grades 6 – 9.

The thrill of those early days of Cotillion is almost indescribable. The new dresses – fabulously froofy ones with lots of taffeta and ruffles. The new shoes – high heels with open toes. The panty hose – a lovely shade of nude unrolled from a little plastic egg. The white gloves – required by Mrs. Butts and with a pearl button that fastened on the inside of my wrist. Such glamour!

But there also was angst. Though terribly boy crazy myself, I was not in the popular clique and therefore not one of the girls all the boys wanted to dance with. When I close my eyes, I see an awkward middle schooler with a horrible layered 80s haircut in a hand-me-down rabbit’s fur coat trying desperately to impress those around me. I even had to endure several weeks of attending the dances with a cast on my arm, thanks to my severe lack of coordination on the dodgeball court. Such torture!

My earliest cotillion memory is from December 1982, when tornadoes ripped through Little Rock, leaving my house without power. That Saturday night, I was in the middle of a real pre-teen crisis. “How am I going to curl my hair?” I whined to my mother, who was a soothing my nerves in the glow of the Coleman camping lantern. “How am I going to put on my eye shadow?”

Thankfully, my grandparents had power. There, I completed my routine of tightly curling my bangs into a configuration resembling a roll of coins and carefully covering my eyelids in a thick layers of iridescent blue and pink eye shadows. Gorgeous.

Dressed to the nines in our satin and taffeta and bows, my friends and I were all atwitter as we were chauffeured by a parent to the Racquet Club. I still remember the glow of the upper room as we rounded the corner for drop off. The nervous anticipation as we ascended the stairs, pausing to shake Mrs. Butt’s gloved hand before taking our place along the wall. Girls on the left. Boys on the right. A drumbeat announced the start of the Grand March. And then the horror began.

I could see the boys counting, trying to figure out which girl they were going to get as their first partner. They began switching places, shifting around in line to either a) avoid getting a dud, which I assumed was me, or b) ensure they got the girl of their dreams, which I assumed was not me. Finally, we ended up in pairs.

The rule was you had to dance the first set of dances with your first partner before you began plea bargaining with those around you to switch. I do remember several evenings that I ended up with a winning switch, dancing “The Stargazer” in the awkward arms with a boy I actually had a crush on. Mostly I remember my silent prayer that I not be rejected multiple times in one evening.

To Mrs. Butts’ credit, not all the dances were partner dances. We learned such dances as the “Jedi Frog,” which entailed some jumping around and waving your arms over your head – but in cool way. My two favorites were “The Freeze” and “The Military Shuffle.” I can still do both of them with aplomb, even saying the motions out loud in the droning voice of the instructor as I do them. I assure you, I’m not alone. My high school friends and I still routinely break into the shuffle whenever given the chance. It works best to Prince’s “Delirious,” just so you know.

My son is going into 6th grade next year, and we’ve already sent his application in for cotillion. Why, you may ask, are parents today still subjecting their children to such torture? Hell, it’s good for them! Experience rejection at an early age! Learn to serve your “date” her cold Coca Cola before you enjoy your own! Enjoy the swishing, swooshing of taffeta in preparation for all those bridesmaids dresses!

But really it’s just so I can teach him to treat girls the way I wanted to be treated back then. Be kind to every girl you dance with. Never, ever swap places in line during the Grand March. Smile. Make small talk. Compliment her nude stockings and open toe shoes. And most of all, memorize every move to the Military Shuffle so you can bust a move with your mom at your wedding reception.

Jennifer Cobb Pyron is a wife, mother, daughter, sister, writer, editor, part-time comedian, 80s trivia genius and wannabe rock star. She works at Arkansas Business Publishing Group where she’s Associate Publisher & Editor of Little Rock Family. She will happily teach you cotillion dances at any time … just ask!

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7 Responses

  1. Having no children of my own, I dream of my Yankee niece and nephews experience cotillion. Of course it would entail me whisking them from Alaska and New York, respectively, and housing them for however long the classes last. I can’t just send them home at 2pm like I do the kiddos at the Museum of Discovery. 🙂

  2. Awesome. Those pink hose are rockin’, girl! Did you also take the White Gloves and Party Manners class at Dillards? I remember dreading those damn classes. 🙂

  3. absolutely awesome- i cannot wait until Thing1 is in 6th grade…

  4. Natalie, I DID take the class at Dillard’s! I had forgotten about that. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Oh cotillion! My mom tells a hilarious tale about accompanying me to my first cotillion class. Apparently, I kept whirling around in my chair giving her wide eyed looks as I realized that no, she had not made all of these ridiculous manner rules up, but in fact, they were widely accepted customs of polite behavior. I never had boyfriends, but I had a whole pack of boy-friends who were like my brothers. My job at cotillion was to cut in whenever they had to dance with someone they didn’t like. I still remember the thrill of victory when my friend Brian and I won the foxtrot contest at the Holly Ball.

  6. Being a Yankee, myself, this was very enlightening! I do have to say that in that second picture of you, I thought that wreath behind your head was your hair.

  7. My son was voted Best All around Danceer 2 years in a row and was crowned King at the Christmas Ball! This southern mom is real proud!

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