Lake Norman & Mooresville

Cotillion teaches students a ‘lost art’

You're sitting down to a formal dinner with some of the best and brightest in the city and you realize there's a glass on your left and a glass on your right. Which one is yours and which one is your neighbors?

If you've never taken cotillion or basic etiquette classes, you might pick wrong, making for an awkward social misstep.

But for a group of middle schoolers in the Lake Norman area, they'll never have to agonize over which glass to pick up - they already know the answer thanks to Southern Cotillion, a company that serves eight areas, including Lake Norman.

Beth Stubbs has been operating the Greensboro-based company for more than 25 years and teaches both males and females in fifth through eighth grade.

The company's annual five-week session starts in February. While there are other organizations that offer cotillion classes in the area, Southern Cotillion administrative assistant Diane Wise said those tend to run for different spans of time and might target different age groups. Over five weeks, students learn such etiquette basics as how to make eye contact, give a firm handshake, and sit up straight, skills that Wise says "are a lost art in modern society."

Students also learn how to eat soup properly, dance the waltz and other ballroom dances and the proper silverware to use at each course of a meal.

Although cotillion originally referred to a social dance developed in France in the 18th century, the term has become synonymous with etiquette classes over the years.

"We're teaching them self confidence and how to feel comfortable in social settings," said Wise. "Parents see a real change in their children."

To get students in the mindset of formal etiquette lessons, males are required to wear a coat, tie and dress slacks while females must wear Sunday dresses and white gloves.

It's a stark contrast from today's technology era, where Facebook, Blackberries and iPads dominate young adults' lives and technology has its own etiquette code.

Still, as Mooresville mom Susan Conlon pointed out, "There are some things you can't do electronically. There's no substitute for knowing how to interact face to face with someone."

Conlon's daughter, Julia, an eighth grader at Community School of Davidson, has attended Southern Cotillion since she was in sixth grade. Conlon said that although she originally had to persuade her daughter to attend the first class, Julia has come to look forward to the five-week cotillion session each year.

"All my friends go too, and it's kind of cool trying something new that you wouldn't normally do," said Julia. "It's a lot more fun that you would probably think it would be."

While students see it as an opportunity to socialize with others their age, parents see it as a way to reinforce the basic etiquette they've tried to teach at home.

That's a task that some parents say can often feel like an uphill battle.

"We live in this world of texting and IM'ing, and it's hard for someone to sit down and make a conversation with someone else for even five minutes," said Mooresville resident Hollis Adams.

Adams's daughter, Hollis, and son, Bo, both attend Cotillion.

"I was hesitant in the beginning because I didn't know how strict they were going to be, but it's actually a lot of fun," said Bo, a seventh grader at Community School of Davidson. "If you ever go to a business meeting, you need to know proper manners and how to eat food without being disrespectful or nasty."

Mom Hollis Adams said she didn't consider manners really important herself when she was growing up in the 1970s. But when she started college and began looking for jobs afterward, she soon realized the importance of polishing manners early in life.

"I tell my children that this will help them in life. As a parent, you want to teach them that no matter where you are or who you are, you will probably always have to use these manners," she said. "And when you do use them, people are going to notice you for the right reasons."