In last year’s acclaimed documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, a group of preteens from New York City learn the art of ballroom dancing. It’s not an easy task, the viewer quickly discovers. At first the students look awkward, lack self-confidence and are insecure around the opposite sex.
But as the movie unfolds, a transformation occurs. The boys and girls begin to improve, they ultimately shed their shyness, and in the end they emerge poised, graceful and confident.
In Richmond, cotillions strive to do the same thing by teaching social graces and manners to middle-schoolers through ballroom dance. They have been part of the community’s fabric for more than half a century.
“I don’t know about other cities, but it’s so much part of the culture here,” says Laura Brown, co-owner of Town and Country Cotillion. “I participated in cotillion, and so have all of my three children.”
Middle-school cotillions carry the same name but are different from Richmond’s debutante balls, such as the German and the Bal du Bois, which traditionally serve as a young woman’s introduction to society.
Brown’s mother, Nancy Butcher Leake, founded the Town and Country Cotillion more than 45 years ago with two friends and a local dance instructor. As Brown remembers it, her mother saw a community need for ballroom-dance classes. “At that time, Miss Donnan’s [Junior Assembly] was the only other cotillion in Richmond,” she recalls. “It was so popular, and they couldn’t get their children in, so they decided to start their own.”
Many of Town and Country’s first students came from private schools such as St. Christopher’s, where Leake taught first grade. Today, though, the cotillion boasts boys and girls from both private and public schools throughout the region. “There’s this perception from the outside that it’s still exclusive to private-school children,” says Brown. “That’s just not true.”
Some of those perceptions of exclusivity also result from enrollment limitations. Due to the size of the Tuckahoe Woman’s Club hall, where classes are held, Town and Country caps the number of participants. As Brown puts it, “There’s only so much room on the dance floor.”
The registration and selection process typically begins in winter, when organizers of Richmond’s cotillions host teas for parents of prospective students to inform them about the program and related costs. After this, registration opens.
To keep harmony on the dance floor, a 1-to-1 ratio of girls to boys must be met. Then admission closes and invitations are sent, usually at the end of May. “Sometimes it can be a logistical nightmare,” Brown says. “But for the most part we’ve got it down to a science.”
Cotillion dances often are held at stately halls beginning in the fall and running through March. For the most part, boys are required to don coats and ties, and girls wear dresses. On theme nights, such as Western and beach dances, attire is more casual.
Parental involvement with cotillion tends to be strong. Moms and dads are encouraged to participate either as volunteers or spectators. Each December, cotillion organizers hold formal Holly Balls, a chance for the girls to carry festive nosegays or wear corsages. White gloves also are a common sight at these gatherings, which often serve as charity events during which parents are invited to dance and witness their children’s progress firsthand.
Mothers and fathers also serve as chauffeurs, ferrying their children’s car pools to restaurants after the dances — often the preteens’ first adult-style outings.
The oldest operating cotillion in town is Cleiland Donnan Junior Assembly, named for its retired owner and instructor, known to many simply as Miss Donnan. “She lived and breathed cotillion,” says Susan Norton, who has co-directed Junior Assembly with Jackie Davidson for more than 20 years. “She really taught us a lot about how to work with the children. She always told us to think of the children first.”
Norton and Davidson say little has changed since Miss Donnan operated Junior Assembly. The dances are held at the historic Bolling Haxall House on East Franklin Street on Friday and Saturday evenings. First-year students learn basic ballroom dances such as the waltz and fox trot. As boys and girls advance through the years, instructors introduce more sophisticated dance steps and etiquette behavior.
Now in its 62nd year, Junior Assembly is more popular than it’s ever been, according to Norton and Davidson. “We have children on waiting lists,” Davidson says. “Parents remember how much fun it was when they participated, and they now want to enroll their children.”
A Social Education
Guy Crittenden’s three daughters all go to Town and Country Cotillion. “The whole cotillion environment is a little intimidating at first,” he admits. But by the time they learn a few dances, Crittenden and others notice that the children warm up to the process, their posture improves, they show better eye contact, and both boys and girls begin to enjoy dancing with their partners. Cotillions do not leave partnering to chance: Dancers are paired in an opening procession and change partners when the instructors say so.
“The middle-school years are the perfect years for doing this,” says Jean Ray of Colony Cotillion, a nonprofit organization sponsored by Tri-Club Woman’s Club. “That’s when children start learning how to socialize with the opposite sex, and it’s usually an awkward time for many of them.”
Tri-Club members hold nine dances annually at the West End Community Center on Ridge Road. According to Ray, girls initially have an easier time with cotillion than boys. “At first the boys usually get dragged to it,” she says. “Then once they do it a few times, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad.’ ”
Chris Bolen, a rising freshman at Godwin High School, enjoys cotillion for the social interaction with friends and the chance to meet new students. This upcoming fall will be his fourth and last year as a student at Miss Donnan’s cotillion. After that, he’ll guide the younger dancers as a junior assistant, a post filled by older high-school students.
Cotillion has helped him learn how to be comfortable in new surroundings and social situations, he says, especially ones involving girls.
“You learn about-town etiquette,” Chris notes. “It’s not necessarily outdated etiquette either. Guys still need to be respectful. You’re taught classic gentleman stuff.”