I grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood under the watchful eye of a very frugal mother. She reused and recycled before it was chic. We squeezed every milli-drop from our toothpaste tubes, and powdered milk was a staple in our pantry.
So it came as a surprise when my mother signed me up for a somewhat costly Junior Cotillion class when I was thirteen. “You need to learn social graces,” she said, “So if you ever have the chance to go to a ball, you’ll know how to dance and which fork to use.” At this point in time, my mother was holding out hope that I would get a full scholarship to Harvard, hob-nob with the wealthy and perhaps become a doctor or at a minimum, marry one.
These were the days of Izod shirts in every color, and add-a-bead necklaces, pink and green wrap-around skirts and Reed Hunter Fair Isle sweaters featuring whales or turtles knit around the collars. Preppy boys donned pin-striped oxford shirts and Ralph Lauren jackets with khaki pants. The wealthy girls from MacGregor Downs and Country Club Hills had collections of argyle vests with matching knee socks and carried coordinating monogrammed Pappagallo purses with wooden handles.
My mother took me to Hudson Belk and let me pick out a blue and green plaid jumper. JC Penney had a version of an Izod shirt on sale. Instead of an alligator, it bore a lizard over the left nipple and mom swore that no one could tell the difference. I got one in pale pink, another in yellow and one in white to go under my jumper. You couldn’t beat the savings OR the variety of looks I could achieve just by changing my shirt.
My private school classmates were from Ravenscroft and Cardinal Gibbons. I later found out that they had the best drugs at those schools, but at the time I was oblivious and wouldn’t have considered how much more amusing cotillion would have been with just a few hits of pot.
Initially I was intrigued. I’d never held hands with a boy before and there were some attractive options in the class, all sitting in chairs against the wall in a circle around the rec room at a posh North Raleigh community center, not far from the Carolina Country Club. As we were forced to rotate partners, I was going to get the chance to dance with every one of them, whether they liked it or not. With their feathered hair and navy blue blazers, they slumped in their chairs as we waited for our instructor, the matriarchal Nancy Gaddy, to enter the room, at which point all young men were expected to stand and the girls must sit up straight with their gloved hands neatly folded in their laps.
Each class would open with a lecture on etiquette, the importance of Thank You notes, how to make introductions, or how to act in a receiving line. One afternoon when we walked into the room, our circle of chairs was replaced by a long, formally set table, complete with silver candelabras and more utensils than I’d ever encountered, even on the very occasional evenings when our parents took us out to eat at Neptune’s Galley. We learned about salad forks and fish knives, oyster forks and soupspoons and practiced polite conversation and the proper use of a napkin.
The second half of the class was dedicated to learning the dances we were sure to encounter as we waltzed through our lives attending sorority mixers, charity galas and yacht club soirees, none of which I could see in my tealeaves, pinky finger up or not. When Mrs. Gaddy would call out a dance that we were to do, boys would scramble across the room to ask a girl to dance. As at my Junior High School, the playing field was not equal. It was immediately clear who were the cheerleaders and who were the geeks. Mary Hardin Bryan, with her perfect teeth and shiny pennies in her loafers was always in demand. I was often the last girl asked, and usually reluctantly, after the music had started and the last boy was forced to dodge the swinging elbows of his affluent classmates to find me, still sitting in my chair, hands folded neatly, ever hopeful.
When it came time for the Spring Ball, my classmates went to hair salons for fabulous updos, while my mother put my hair in braids and then wrapped them around each other, princess Leia-style. Those girls all shopped for their dresses at the finest boutiques in Cameron Village. Southern belle ball gowns in a swirl of pale tangerine sorbet. Crimson Scarlett-O’Hara dresses with layers of silken ruffles. They all had elegant white gloves, some to their elbows, others wrist high with little buttons down the back.
My gloves were from Kmart’s First Communion collection and were a little too small, but they were $4.99 and mom let me clip off the little yellow flower that adorned each wrist. I kept trying to stretch the fingers, but inevitably they’d bounce back to their true shape, making my hands appear webbed. My dress was sewn by my mother on her Singer Genie using Simplicity’s high-waisted square neckline pattern #3131, long dress version #3. She made it out of a white seersucker fabric and used a strawberry embroidered trim with an islet ruffle on the shoulder straps and square bodice. She couldn’t bear to let the extra eleven and a half inches of trim go to waste so she fashioned a lovely choker out of it with the use of a safety pin.
The week before the spring ball, we were given dance cards, 3”x4” white booklets with Junior Cotillion 1979 engraved on the cover in a swirling gold font with a gold ribbon looped around the corner. The ribbon was provided for girls to tie the dance cards to their wrists so as to remember their next dance partner. Inside there were ten spaces for the names of the people we would dance with as each number was called. We spent the first half of the class discussing the importance of being gracious and of asking people that you don’t know well and making sure that everyone in the class had a full dance card for the big event. IF, for any reason, there was an empty space on a student’s card, Mrs. Gaddy would fill those spaces with students from her advanced classes. It would be a wonderful opportunity, she said, to dance with an exceptional dancer and she recommended leaving one space open for that experience.
It was probably clear to Mrs. Gaddy that I truly hoped to perfect my dancing skills by accepting her challenge in that I still had nine spaces open on my dance card after all the boys had asked the girls in our class to dance.
The Cotillion Ball took place at the downtown Civic Center. It was a large affair that brought all of the greater Wake County Junior Cotillion chapters together for an evening of extreme etiquette around ornate punch bowls. White twinkle lights filled potted fichus trees and a live orchestra was playing big band music as we arrived.
The master of ceremonies walked onto the stage to greet the crowd. He happened to be the long-time anchor of the Channel 5 news and a very familiar face to us all. He was also the husband of our Cotillion director, a local celebrity to be sure, and my first brush with stardom. That brush would come few times too often for me, though, as my dance card had a series of names that I didn’t recognize at all, written in the careful cursive of Mrs. Gaddy. We were instructed to come to the front of the room by the stage after each dance number was called out if we could not locate our partners.
My first dance partner found me fairly quickly. Wade was about 6 foot 3 and I had to reach up to get my hand on his shoulder for the foxtrot. He was in his third year of the program and was actually very kind when I repeatedly stepped on his feet. Perhaps this isn’t going to be so bad, I thought. But for the second dance, Strauss’ “Lagoon Waltz,” the music had easily been playing for over a minute before emcee Charlie Gaddy stepped forward to look at my dance card. “Brooks Barrington for Suzanne Lowe,” he announced into the loud speaker, “Brooks Barrington, please report to the stage for your second dance.” Reluctantly, a boy I recognized from my class appeared from the shadows. We awkwardly moved one-two-three, two-two-three, both mouthing the count and never meeting each other’s eyes.
The third dance of the night was the Cha-cha. Again, my partner was not an immediate show. Charlie Gaddy came down off the stage and helped one other young dancer find her partner before gliding up to me, checking my dance card and calling out, “Blaine Fontaine for Suzanne Lowe.”
And so it went throughout the night. Occasionally, my unknown partner would find me and we would foxtrot or waltz in uncomfortable silence, or the master-of ceremonies would locate my partner and we would foxtrot or waltz in uncomfortable silence.
At last, the tenth and final dance arrived. In a surprise turn of events, my dance partner did not seek me out. “Preston Spencer,” Charlie Gaddy formally announced, “Please come to the dance floor at the front of the hall for the last dance of the evening.”
I imagined him a Christopher Atkins look-alike, glimpsing me across the floor and smiling a broad smile as he took my hand in his and twirled me around the Civic Center. But there was no sign of Preston… or Christopher. Just me, standing by a fichus tree fairly certain that I’d never even want to go to the kind of parties where this kind of dancing or formality was essential, when a hand touched my elbow.
“May I have the honor of this dance?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, surprised as I looked up into his kind eyes, and I was guided across the dance floor with a certain grace of movement I never knew I had. Charlie Gaddy looked down at me with a smile and said, “You’re an elegant dancer Suzanne Lowe.” I lay my white-gloved hand in the confident grasp of the television star.
# # #