Cotillion: A Southern Tradition I Might Have Skipped

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Cotillion is a charming tradition in the American South that attempts to mold children into fine young ladies and gentlemen through a series of formal and informal dances. If it sounds stuffy and antiquated and exclusive, that’s because it is. Kind of.

I signed my kids up anyway because I like nice manners as much as the next California girl. I just don’t believe they are meant to be used all the time. (They say my Southern conversion is “almost” complete.)

At the Junior Cotillion of Bentonville, Arkansas, the terrible ‘tweens learn Southern social graces, such as dancing in a line. Boys are taught to ask girls if they prefer water or Coke. The program culminates with the Holly Ball, a Christmas dance where parents are forced to dress up and dance with their children. It’s horrifying. And yet, adorable.

Clearly, I am conflicted about cotillion. The perfectionist in me wants to raise picture-perfect children who say please, thank you, and “How do you know our hostess?” The normal, healthy, rational part of me finds the entire exercise overdone and ridiculous.

“It’s a bit much,” I once told my dad’s wife.

“Oh, you never know,” she said. “You never know where life will take them.”

While it’s true I don’t know all the places they’ll go, I’m pretty sure even State Department dinners don’t require white gloves and hosiery.

It’s not cheap, this cotillioning. There’s tuition, clothes they’ll never wear again and “after-party” activities. Going out with their friends after the dances is the real reason our kids submit to our silliness. For the past two years I have taken turns with three other moms taking our sons to the frozen yogurt place or the mall food court or the video arcade. At each location I was expected to disappear into a back corner booth. Rightfully so.

This year my daughter started cotillion, and the moms are front and center. I’m not naming any names – because my kids are mid-season as I write this and I’m on enough blacklists already – but some of the moms have become a teensy bit competitive about the kids’ after dance activities. From sit-down restaurants, to roller-skating, to house parties, to a corn maze – each mom seems to be trying to top the one before in giving our already over-indulged kids ever more “special” experiences.

“It’s insane,” I told my born and bred Southern girlfriend.

“It’s always been that way,” she said. “It’s cotillion.”

No, it’s cuh-razy. 

Lela Davidson is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA, and Managing Editor for Parenting Squad. Her writing is featured on the TODAY Show Moms blog, in Chicken Soup for the Soul: New Moms, and in family and parenting magazines throughout the United States and Canada. Follow her on Twitter @leladavidson

Image credit: amiefedora (Flickr)

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