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Once More to Cotillion

How long has it been? Twenty years? Well, it’s great to see you again after all this time. And look, here’s a corner table that’s got our name on it.

Yes, life is good, and the kids are growing up fast. Ballet, basketball, school projects, and math problems just as confusing as when we were in school. And here’s another blast from the past. Would you believe my 12-year-old daughter has started cotillion?

You remember cotillion, of course, and all these years later, it’s fun to look back and laugh. Even the word itself still sounds funny. Cotillion. Half starchy, social ritual; half awkward, middle-school circus act.

But you have to admit, cotillion served a noble purpose. Back in our pre-teen days, before we got drivers’ licenses or knew what a date was, cotillion squared us off against all those mystifying gooney birds otherwise known as the opposite gender. There we were, just a bunch of clueless sixth-graders dressed in our best – girls in white gloves, boys in blazers and bucks. Could we really learn how to dance?

Sure, these days you can find me waltzing at a wedding if called upon to do so, and even now I can recognize a cha-cha beat if put to the test. But back then, brought into close, synchronous orbit with calm, cool, collected girls, I spent most of my time worrying about how to get through the evening without stepping on anyone’s feet, saying anything stupid, or otherwise making a complete fool of myself.

And that’s why, as a parent now, it’s so much fun to sit in the ballroom balcony and watch our kids sweat through cotillion.

Mostly it’s the same stuff you remember. There’s the “Grand March” at the beginning, when boys line up on one side of the room, girls on the other, and link up arm-in-arm as the lines dovetail together for the first dance of the evening. On the stage, there’s still the elegant, surefooted lady who leads cotillion – patient and encouraging one minute, exasperated the next – and the tall, classy fellow who serves as her partner to demonstrate all the steps and moves.

Down on the floor, it’s still a scene of young couples laughably mismatched in height (girls mostly taller) shuffling and frowning through the box step, foxtrot, and rhumba. And remember those eagleeyed cotillion helpers who constantly shush kids who are only half-listening to the music anyway? The only thing missing from our cotillion days is the intermission when each boy, in a first lesson in gentlemanly manners, fetched an old-fashioned glass bottle of Coke – with paper straw – for his dance partner.

But now that I’m father to a daughter, I get to see cotillion from the other side of the ballroom. And things sure look different from over here.

For example: As someone who’s used to owning just a few coats, ties, and a pair or two of dress shoes, I still don’t get why we must buy a different dress for each dance. Lucy’s mom calls this cotillion shopping mother-daughter time. I think of it as we just spent a whole lot of money on a dress she will only wear once.

Then there is the cotillion carpool.Back in my day, carpool meant just hanging around until a station wagon filled with my buddies pulled up to the curb and honked. But for girls, carpool has become a finely tuned instrument of planning and preparation which involves descending on the home of the designated parent driver hours in advance; having a pizza dinner; straightening and blow-drying your hair; straightening and blow-drying each others’ hair; applying various kinds of sparkly makeup; and gossiping about which boys at cotillion are weird (all of them, apparently).

Once at cotillion, the clueless boys usually just stand against the wall and talk among themselves when not called upon to dance. The girls, who are ignoring the boys anyway, frown on this, along with any valiant male attempts to impress them, such as burping the alphabet or yelling “dude!” to their dorky friends across the room. Bonus tip from the ladies, guys: You are not Mace Windu, legendary Jedi Master. Please do not practice your light saber skills anywhere near us.

Unless we are dating, that is. Which, it turns out, is entirely different in the twenty-first century. Apparently, modern-day middle-school boys and girls date through some mysterious form of telepathy. They do not go anywhere together. They do not talk to each other. They do not even stand near each other. (They do occasionally text – Hi, What’s up? Gotta go, Bye.) Entire cycles of shy courtship, in the manner of mosquitoes or moths or meerkats, might play out even in the short span of a cotillion evening, from acknowledging the existence of a new boyfriend to passing each other on the dance floor to breaking up altogether.

Which was all beyond me back in our day. For me, cotillion romance went only as far as gazing across the room at my first serious crush: the girl with the crooked smile and brilliant green eyes I still remember so well.

At least the boys still have to fetch the drinks – lemonade, nowadays, which Lucy says tastes like soap. Her 10-year-old brother, who starts cotillion next year, asks why the boys have to get the girls’ drinks. Actually, he doesn’t understand why the girls can’t get their own drinks. Actually, he doesn’t understand why the girls can’t get the boys their drinks.

Which, in this twenty-first century cotillion world, I’m not sure I get, either. Then again, like these young guys, I was always pretty clueless. But you knew that, and always had my number, didn’t you? All these years on, you still do, sitting here now, smiling your crooked smile and laughing with those eyes that are still as green.

All right then, old friend. Now you tell me. Which one of us gets the drinks?

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. He lives in Richmond’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will. He writes for the DadZone every other month and shares theater reviews occasionally too.
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