Rites of spring
An otherwise outdated ceremony for girls brings life to lost traditions
Published: May 4, 2011
The debutante steps into the spotlight, and a hush falls over the room.
She wears white satin gloves and white pearls and an airy, white billowing gown, and she shines as she stands under the light, at the edge of the ballroom and at the center of attention.
Her tuxedoed father has just escorted her down a marble staircase into the full gaze of the crowd assembled inside the lavish Crystal Ballroom of Detroit's Masonic Temple.
It's the Debutante Cotillion Ball, an old-fashioned Southern ceremony, the unlikeliest of events, held in the ragged Cass Corridor, the unlikeliest of places.
As the pair slowly walks the long floor to the stage, the announcer reads off the debutante's credentials — her academic achievements, her volunteer activities, her athletic accomplishments, her goals. Each of the girls being honored here on this spring evening has a list just as long. To be selected for this night, they have to be achievers in academics and athletics, and successes in their still-short lives.
Once on stage, facing the hundreds in the crowd, she descends slowly to the floor in a perfect curtsy that makes her long gown spread out gracefully at her feet.
And the crowd bursts into applause for her, for the night, for what this formal gesture represents.
"It goes back to our basic principles of returning social grace, poise, elegance to our lives and to our youth," says Renita Barge Clark, 42, the founder of the Cotillion Society, the group behind this evening's event. "It increases their self-esteem. It helps make them well-rounded individuals. Most of them have been exposed to some things, but here, we take it to another level."
A cotillion or debutante ball is the formal presentation of young ladies to polite society. Based on English tradition, it flourished in the American South after the Civil War. Back then it signified that a girl had reached maturity and was now ready to be courted for marriage by eligible bachelors of similarly high social status.
Nowadays they serve mostly to sustain these quaint old customs, to pass on lost traditions and forgotten ways of behavior. For years the Cotillion Club of Detroit hosted such balls, so nationally renowned that Ebony Magazine devoted a four-page photo spread to it one year. Though the club began in 1946 as a social group for black businessmen and evolved over time into a political organization fighting for civil rights, every year it offered young black women the chance to participate in the Southern traditions their migrating parents brought north with them.
But it folded in 1996. Clark, a local physician who'd gone through her own debutante ball as a teenager, didn't want to see these coming-of-age celebrations vanish from the area. A few years ago, she and a friend did some research, traveled the country to observe debutante balls, organized a nonprofit educational foundation and last year held their first cotillion.
For the high school juniors and seniors selected as debutantes, the road here is long and hard. "It's almost like a mini charm school," Clark says. There are the twice-weekly waltz practices that become weekly as the ball draws near. Months of etiquette lessons. Cultural outings like Brunch with Bach at the Detroit Institute of Arts and tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Detroit Opera House. Volunteer tutoring at the Sickle Cell Center in Detroit. Afternoon tea at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. Facets of culture that most girls nowadays don't get to experience.
"It really is sad," she says. "But hopefully as time goes on we as a whole society will feel the need to reinstate some of these traditions, because I believe there was true meaning and a purpose to them."
The escorts gather behind a set of French doors, just outside the ballroom. Their heads tilt toward a crack in the door, as each waits to hear his name called.
Each debutante has her own escort, a teenage boy who is called to the ballroom floor to stand in the spotlight under the scrutiny of the audience. His achievements will be read aloud, he'll solemnly bow, and he'll walk up to her father and formally ask for a dance with his daughter.
This is a lot to think about now, and the waiting escorts break the tension by clowning around, acting unconcerned, but every few minutes they fall back into expressions of mild nervousness as they listen in silence to hear their names.
That's the look worn by Blake West, 16, as he watches the escorts called before him and assesses what awaits him.
A University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy student, he will be majoring in engineering or business at Howard, Columbia, Morehouse or Georgetown, he declares with the assurance of someone whose future is already mapped out. The program for the evening spells out his record: track and field team, member of the Business Club at school, treasurer of Detroit Kappa League, volunteering with Toys for Tots, tutoring at night, and so on, a kid with more responsibilities than most adults.
Like the others, he too went through the etiquette lessons, the dance practices, the instruction on table manners. "I think this is a very valuable experience because when I grow up I may have to go to an event with the president, and those are some things to know," he says, already thinking big.
These are the kids who go to the good schools in town, come from good families, have high aspirations. Tonight is about celebrating them for simply doing good things with their lives.�
"I'm very blessed," West says about his school, where most of his achievements have taken place. It's a nod to his awareness that fortunate circumstances make a difference too.
The announcer's voice echoes through the old hall. It's hard to discern her words from outside the ballroom. But one thing comes through clear. "Blake West." And with that he goes through the door and steps into the spotlight.
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