Before there can be a new Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, there must be a seventh-grade girl in her big sister's homecoming dress and a much shorter seventh-grade boy sporting a beginner's Windsor knot doing the step, step, slide to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
At the Belmont Country Club in Ashburn, 90 such couples waltzed like bumper cars Wednesday night and showcased their newly acquired skills of pinning boutonnieres and making small talk at the second annual winter ball for the Belmont chapter of the National League of Junior Cotillions, a program set up to teach ballroom dancing and etiquette to the nation's rising teenagers.
"As you can see, our area has a lot of parents who want their children to learn manners," said Jean Ann Michie, director of Loudoun's three junior cotillion programs, one each for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
Michie brought the junior cotillion to Loudoun last year for the first time, and 350 kids signed up. Enrollment this year jumped to 460. The early success earned her an award from the Charlotte-based national league, which has 450 chapters in about 30 states, for having the highest enrollment for a new director last year.
Loudoun is the perfect place for an etiquette class, said Sousan Sweeney of Purcellville, because the parents moving to the county have high incomes and are well-educated, and want their children to learn the social skills needed to tap into the area's cultural events and political power base. Sweeney is assistant director of the junior cotillion chapters in Loudoun.
"I've been looking for a cotillion for [my daughter] for a long time," said Cascades resident Mary Ann Dowdle of her daughter Stephanie, who wore a new black dress and her hair in ringlets for the occasion. "I'm happy for her to learn genteel arts, social graces, being able to have a good time in conversation and knowing the nice thing to say," she said.
The wealthy and the traditionalists
Participants in nearby chapters have included daughters and sons of ambassadors, senators and high-ranking members of both political parties, who are likely to find themselves in such formal social situations as inaugural balls, said Marilyn Wellington, director of the Alexandria chapter, which has 300 youths enrolled across southeastern Fairfax County.
She said many other participants have parents who would welcome a turn back to more traditional values of conduct and courtesy.
"I grew up during the '60s and '70s: Manners be gone; raise your kids as free spirits; walk all over your teachers and that sort of thing," Wellington said. "We don't want this for our kids."
Long-established debutante programs and newer etiquette classes for business people are available in Maryland and the District, but the roots of junior cotillion still stretch deepest in the south. Northern Virginia has more than 10 chapters.
"I signed up Kelly because she was very tomboyish," Lovettsville resident Melissa Burrows, a chaperone at the ball, said. "She has an older brother, so she was burping at the table."
Burrows, herself a graduate of a charm school in Houston, left early from her job as a security officer at Loudoun County High School on Wednesday so she could take Kelly to the hairdresser to have her straight, blond hair pinned into a pile of curls.
Out on the dance floor, Kelly shone in a long, white gown and towered over her partner of the moment, 12-year-old Andrew Jones. "One. Two. Cha-cha-cha. One. Two. Cha-cha-cha," she directed, varying their pace with an occasional command: "TURN."
The five-course series includes lessons in table manners, phone etiquette (such as, girls should only call boys when changing plans, getting homework or returning a call) and how to settle into a chair. "We teach the boys to sit strong and the girls to sit pretty," Michie said.
The program costs about $300, and Michie said occasionally scholarships are available so that more young people can have the chance to learn job interview skills and the proper way to enter a restaurant with a date (boys should let girls walk ahead, unless they are seating themselves, in which case the boys should lead).
Next year, Michie would like to start an advanced program for third-year students, which would include an extra trip to the country club for lessons in tennis and golf etiquette. She also has plans to add a theater component so young people can practice the proper way to be seated, along with a catered reception so they can learn how to conduct themselves around heavy hors d'oeuvres.
"You think it's, like, really boring and gross, but it turns out to be pretty fun," said Brendon Wells, 12, of Purcellville, who along with many of his male classmates did not come to cotillion by choice.
"Gentlemen, rise," was Brendon's cue from the night's emcee to get out of his chair. Upon standing, he buttoned the top two buttons of his jacket as he had been taught to do and then went around to help his dance partner with her chair so he could escort her to the refreshment table for cake and punch.
This program is about teaching young people "to treat others with honor, dignity and respect," said Anne Colvin Winters, who co-founded the National League of Junior Cotillions in 1978.
"There's nothing old-fashioned about being kind and considerate," Winters said.