A Trifling Place, Episode 13: Cotillions and Etiquette Schools
Welcome to A Trifling Place, a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.
The story goes that the deeper South you go, the friendlier the people become. So moving here a year ago, I was well-prepared for the onslaught of "Yes m'ams" and chivalrous men who insist that you walk through the revolving door first.
When I first heard about cotillions, promenades and etiquette schools in Charlotte that teach your kids the proper way to sit and clap (and some catering to "elite housewives"), I didn't think much of it. I mean, OK, well, I'm in the South, I guess that's normal?
Turns out, these schools are actually kind of cool. Not only that, but the institutions that have sprung up to preserve the Southern way of life – with this emphasis on manners, etiquette and presentation – also have a rich history in the region.
"I do think it's more of a tradition from the South but I think it has expanded a lot more over the past probably 20-30 years," says Benet Patterson, director of the National League of Junior Cotillions for North Mecklenburg.
What's A Cotillion?
A cotillion is a ballroom dance that has its origins in France, made its way to England and finally to America in the late 1700s. It's in the same tradition of debutante balls. A long time ago, it was a way of telling the world that your daughter is on the market and ready for marriage.
Charles and Anne Colvin Winters started the first chapter of the National League of Junior Cotillions in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1979. Mrs.Winters passed away in 2009.
In the 1980s, Charlotte become national headquarters for NLJC. Directors from all over the country fly in to Charlotte every year to get licensed, trained and learn the newest ballroom dance steps.
At the Birkdale Golf Club in Huntersville, Patterson is teaching sixth and seventh-graders all about good posture.
Mallory Vance shakes hands with her escort Nicholas Patterson. Nicholas then extends his left hand toward her seat, waits till she's seated and then takes a seat. They're both 12. Mallory is a seventh-grader at Bailey Middle School. Like the rest of the girls, she's wearing white gloves and a colorful spring dress.
"My mom thought we needed a little bit more manners so … I don't know, like most of my friends have equal manners as me," she says.
Nicholas is sharply dressed in a black blazer. He says he's here because it's fun. But also … well, his mom's the director.
Susan Armistead, retired director of Junior Cotillion of Greater Charlotte, says there's a particular challenge to working with middle school kids.
"When you got a bunch of sixth graders hearing about manners, can you just imagine how boring that is?" Armistead asks. She pretends to snore to demonstrate her point.
So there are plenty of sports metaphors to keep the boys interested, a Taylor Swift soundtrack in the background to keep the girls happy. And some classics like the 1976 hit, "I'm Your Boogie Man":
Technology and Manners in Charlotte
Armistead first became a cotillion director 12 years ago.
"I would say 10 years ago I would have given us an eight," Armistead says. "I would say today I'm giving us more like a six."
"I just wish we could get more mannerly," Armistead says. "I just feel like this world of technology, kids aren't going to be able to write a sentence. I make them write me thank you notes every year and I got home and I picked up a thank you note to read it and it was T, X, letter U, number 4 and I don't even know what the rest of it was. It never occurred to me that I had to say we're not texting thank you notes!"
One of her biggest pet peeves is when dining out and seeing people reading their phones instead of looking at each other. UNC Charlotte History Professor Karen Cox feels the same way.
"If you look at photographs of campus at UNC Charlotte, even 15 years ago you would just see, you know how they have these shots of a campus with students just walking and carrying books? If you were to take the same photograph from the same place, those people would have their heads down looking at their phones."
Technology has been disruptive. Cox studies Southern history and culture and she laughed when I told her my hypothesis that Charlotteans are more mannerly. And "southern hospitality?" Forget About It. Not a real thing.
"The thing that people often comment on about the South is southern hospitality, which is not about etiquette, it's about being welcoming and feeding your guests and taking that time with one another, etcetera," Cox says. "When the DNC came to town, there was lots of talk about southern hospitality – which to me is some veneer of something that people like to say. So if they say, we're going to show them hospitality. To me it's just hospitality, you happen to be in the South. You could have same experience you know in Maine. "
But Southern hospitality used to be a real thing, courtesy of a couple of characteristics: the South for a long time was more agricultural than industrial, and it's associated with our plantation culture, which thrived on slave labor.
"People of means would have people come and their guests would stay with them in these big houses for like weeks at a time. That's what being hospitable was," Cox says. "If you went to visit someone, you could stay with them in their homes and what made it possible to be hospitable was slave labor. Because they weren't having to do the cooking and the cleaning. It was their slaves that made that possible. And so today you don't have that. And so it's like this code word for something special you're going to get. It's sort of like the South's brand and its identity is associated with hospitality."
So where do these cotillions fit in?
"These cotillions, debutante kind of things are related to the whole culture of debuting in society and I guess learning that from early age on up. That's something that tends to be associated with white elites," Cox says. "That's about people with money who want to showcase their wealth through their children. It has this long history of women from elite families in the South who debut in society. This is just an evolution of that idea to today."
Directors and parents who send their kids to cotillion, of course, have a different take on this. Parents I spoke to say they're thinking about college interviews, job interviews and middle school dances. The cotillion classes cost about $600 for a year's worth of classes, dinner and two grand formals.
Interviews aside, the biggest hurdle for now is eye contact. An older student works with one of the boys to try to get him to look at her while they dance the foxtrot.
"You're going to get used to it, I promise," she tells him.