Illustration by David Busby
For generations of Richmond residents, just the sound of the word can bring a cringing smile to the face, along with memories of the grand march, the Holly Ball and white gloves masking sweaty palms. For folks up north, the word evokes something closer to ... nothing.
"She's doing what?" your relative asks.
"It's what now?"
"Co-TILL-yon. It's a dance. Like a ball. They wear white gloves and everything!"
"Oh," she says blankly.
In my former life as a gum-smacking South Philly girl, I had no clue what a cotillion was. I went to dances at the boys' Catholic high school, where the only light came from the rotating disco ball, there were no chaperones in sight and the girls danced together or waited in mortified silence to be clumsily asked by a boy still clinging to his Tony Manero haircut in the '80s.
At the time in our lives when we felt most awkward, vulnerable and sensitive, we were thrown together willy-nilly in a dark room and told, "You figure it out." Now that I am the mother of a 12-year-old, I am relieved and grateful to have someone figuring it out for them.
For my daughter, that someone is Town & Country Cotillion, which has been teaching ballroom dancing to Richmond middle schoolers for more than 50 years. You'd think it'd be hard to find hundreds of middle schoolers willing to give up their Friday night to dress up fancy, learn dances like the box step and the fox trot, and walk arm-in-arm with members of the opposite sex who could possibly be in their gym classes. And yet, the place is packed.
They spill onto the brick sidewalk of the Tuckahoe Woman's Club by the mini-vanful. I'm talking 12-year-old girls in silk and taffeta and white gloves, boys in their official dress-up uniform: navy-blue blazer, khakis, One Direction haircut and permanent smirk.
As parents watch from the balcony, the girls are lined up along one wall and boys on the other. At November's "Presidential Gala," Neil Diamond's "America" blares from the speakers, signaling the start of the grand march, and the lines snake toward the front of the ballroom, where, two-by-two, a girl and boy pair up, shake hands and introduce themselves, and then the boy extends his right-angled arm, which the girl takes gracefully as they proceed to line up in rows.
At least that's how it's supposed to happen. But it's in this moment that all is revealed as it really is: children play-acting at being grown-ups. And it's nothing less than charming. Left hands bang into right hands for an awkward shake. One of the organizers guides the proper hand in for a do-over. A limp right arm is offered reluctantly. Girls, 5-foot-2 in heels, are paired with peewee boys.
The dancing begins, led by Sandy Yeon, whom one would eagerly describe as "a hoot." Trying to get the boys to do the right step, she says, "Boys, take your left hand and smack your left leg. Now smack it again. Now smack it again. OK, now the leg that's stinging is the one you're going to put forward ..."
When it's time for the boy to wrap his hand around the girl's back, things get a bit awkward. You could park your car in the space between them, and when Yeon tells them to separate, they spring back as if recoiling from a rattlesnake.
The parents in the peanut gallery can't help but squeal with laughter. One father is laughing so hard he's squeezing the tears back into his eyes.
After some practice steps, the music starts. It's Neil Young's "Harvest Moon."
"Come a little bit closer/Hear what I have to say ..."
The pairs of young dancers begin box-stepping in something resembling unison. From your vertigo-inducing spot in the balcony, the floor seems to be moving, the ground itself shifting beneath your feet. And when your 12-year-old daughter slips into a shimmering dress and asks to wear lip gloss in anticipation of dancing with a boy for the first time, it really, truly is.