In the grand ballroom of the Austin Country Club a crowd of pre-teen boys and girls lightly hold each other’s shoulders and waists and move to the classic music of the waltz. The dancers’ lanky limbs maintain a safe distance from the opposite sex while everyone tries not to step on any toes. Girls are dressed in glitzy gowns and boys in sharp sportcoats and khakis. They look blankly at one another as they wait for dancing directions from the instructor.
The dancers are practicing at a junior cotillion, which hopes to groom middle-school-aged children for etiquette and life skills, including how to greet elders, act in public settings and perform classic dances. Wealthy parents often enroll their children to prepare them for operating in elite social circles. For girls, the cotillion also serves as a precursor to a debutante ball, where they will be formally presented to the public in a lavish ceremony.
Before the dancing began Thursday night, boys and girls were randomly matched with a dancing partner for the beginning of the evening practice session.
Bond Temple, 10, threw his face into his palms when he heard his partner’s name. Temple hoped to dance with his crush, but must wait for the dance floor to open to make his move.
When the first dance ends, the floor opens for the boys to begin their search.
Girls around the room giggle and blush as dancing partners approach and offer an inviting hand.
“Good evening, Miss. My name is…” the boys sheepishly say in a disjointed unison. The girls respond, offer their name and hometown, and kindly thank the young gentleman for his offer before taking his hand.
For 11-year-old Lizzie Cardenas, participating in the junior cotillion is mandatory after her mother signed her up as an after-school activity. She has little interest in dancing with the boys.
“I would rather skateboard outside or something,” Lizzie said. The young tomboy isn’t interested in the girlier aspects of the cotillion and finds the dancing boring.
“We dance the waltz, foxtrot, box step, and a bunch of other dances I don’t remember,” Lizzie said while getting ready at her home before the dance. She rarely smiles while her nanny preps her hair and gets her into her dress for the evening.
On the way to the dance Lizzie is mostly quiet in the backseat of her parent’s car. She only hopes she is not paired with a young boy who has a small pony tail because that would be, “gross.”
Lizzie must attend four of these practice dances, or classes, with each focusing on different etiquette or life skill. Besides getting a certificate upon graduation, children who show progress or answer questions correctly can earn extra recognition. The cotillion instructor offers points for certain etiquette-themed questions and adds up correct responses.
Even though Lizzie frequently yawns throughout the dance with her partner, her dance moves are recognized as among the best. In the last dance of the evening, the instructor awards her the title of “Queen of the Dance,” and places a tiara on her head.
Embarrassed, Lizzie makes her way to her and her partner’s makeshift throne for other participants to recognize them.
After all children have greeted them, the evening ends and Lizzie makes her way back to her parent’s car. Before she walks out the door and hands her tiara to another girl, “Here. You can have this.”