With little fanfare to those outside its orbit, Teen Cotillion of Charlotte announced a few days ago that it would close after a last sixth-grade dance.
Teen Cotillion was one of those uniquely Southern institutions that you might imagine simply can’t survive the sweaty pace of a diversifying society. Cotillion’s website points to a steady decline driven by new family interests, the demands of youth sports and changing school hours.
But to the thousands of students since the mid-1950s who polished their social graces under Cotillion’s hand, or others like it, those hours in bow ties or dresses of appropriate length were a passage to adulthood.
They taught skills you can’t find on YouTube or describe in 140 characters.
“I always thought that Teen Cotillion was right up there with magnolias and all things Southern,” said Karen Price, a Charlotte Chamber vice president whose daughter went there a few years ago.
Price warmly recalls the “White Gloves and Manners” classes she attended at Ivey’s department store in the 1980s. A Mrs. Snow taught the classes, and her porcelain skin, jet black hair and sparkling eyes made her look to an 8-year-old girl very much like Snow White.
“It wasn’t just that we do it, but why we do it – why place settings are on a certain side,” Price said. “There are certain things you just don’t learn anywhere else. You don’t pay attention when your parents tell you to keep your elbows off the table.”
Price’s daughter attended Teen Cotillion a few years ago. While initially not thrilled at the prospect, she emerged with a quiet confidence and the “soft skills” that are expected in the business world: how to shake hands, speak to adults or greet a host.
Dancing mortified both boys and girls, Price said, but that too served up a life lesson. “You reminded them, you’re all equally uncomfortable.”
Promenade, which has been around 63 years, sat down with Teen Cotillion years ago to divide the Charlotte neighborhoods from which they would draw students: Plaza Midwood, Elizabeth, Cotswold, Myers Park and Eastover for Promenade and SouthPark, Barclay Downs and other parts of south Charlotte for Teen Cotillion.
Promenade begins training students in the sixth through eighth grades in manners, ballroom dancing and proper use of social media. Tenth graders come back for coaching on finding summer jobs and navigating college interviews. High school seniors can get a three-week class in dancing the shag, the Carolina classic, before college starts.
Enrollment is brisk, said 14-year executive director Elizabeth Erdle, with 240 sixth graders alone last year and 350 to 400 students in all.
“We don’t see it going away,” she said. “Our enrollment has been strong since I’ve been with them.”
Charlotte fashion entrepreneur Laura Vinroot Poole attended Promenade, as did her father, a former Charlotte mayor, and her siblings. Her daughter Fidelia, 12, had gone to Teen Cotillion and come to love it.
“Certainly, they learn dances like the box step and the shag. There are times in life when you need to know that, like at a wedding,” Poole said. “But more importantly, what she learned is social skills. When you walk in, you have to introduce yourself to the hostess and say goodbye when you leave. You learn how how to do a proper RSVP, table manners, how to introduce yourself.
“They’re life skills.”