We have a strong Cajun influence here in New Orleans. Creole music, food, and an influence on life that makes it all a bit different than the rest of the United States. There is obviously a French element to that. One of these that is huge in many southern towns is having cotillions. The direct translation from French to English of the word “Cotillion” is the word “petticoat’ but the more appropriate translation is the word “ballgown.”
Cotillions are a big part of growing up as a young southern girl. Cotillions often lead to the culmination of a Debutante Ball, which is the formal introduction of young ladies into society.
As I've gotten beyond my youth years, I have found these formal rituals both more comforting, and yet often quite silly. There is comfort in routine. But the lavishness and excess of them is often quite daunting. But did you ever see anything quite as beautiful as a young girl in the prime of her life with perfect hair and a perfect dress and a perfect smile on her pretty face?
I remember how well my very firt cotillion where I was allowed to go unchaperoned. I was fifteen years old. It was an autumn colitllion and I had just started the 10th grade. I was so excited that I could hardly stand it. In order to attend you had to purchase a ticket, which were on sale in the weeks leading up to the big event.
I worked with two other girls and their mothers to help decorate the ball room. We chose coppery strings everywhere mixed with shots of red and orange. We hung millions of them from the ceiling so the entire ceiling looked like it was a huge, shimmering moon.
The menu (I still have the booklet):
Sally Lunn Bread with assorted butter and cheese spread
Scones with Devonshire Cream and fresh fruit
Raspberry Surprise shortcake
Poppy seed squares
I sat with my best girlfriends Sandra, Holly and Melanie. Our parents sat in the back at their own table, but after the first dance they all left so that we could enjoy our first evening without them. They returned a few hours later to bring us all home.
The Master of Ceremonies was Mr. Lucent, the town regent. It was quite an honor to have him attend our little cotillion, although in retrospect possibly some donations were made in his name to his various pet projects from many of the wealthy patrons of that set.
My dress was a stunning piece of emerald, deep green shimmery taffeta. It had shoulder sleeves and my mother lent me her mink stole to wear in the chilly evening. The gown was rather risque in the front, although even at that time I didn't have much to fill it out with. My mother also lent me her emerald necklace and piled up my hair in a chignon high with curls that hung down on either side. I had been learning to dance in heels and these were very thin, very tall heels. I had a slim gold purse which held some lipstick (my first!) and some tissues and ten dollars. I truly felt like a princess.
Mr. Harrington, my best friend's father, offered my first dance. We all liked dancing with Mr. Harrington because he was one of the best dancers. He could twirl you around and make you feel like you were spinning and then catch you suddenly. My next dance was with a young man named Hamilton who had really bad skin and kept stepping on my toes and unfortunately could have used a breath mint. I tried to be very polite as we had been taught but after the third time he crushed my toes he apologized profusely and excused himself. (Luckily we have turned out to be marvelous friends later in life and laugh about that now).
The orchestra played the tango, the cha cha and we made a stab at the Charleston, although none of us were that well versed yet.
My favorite dance of the night was Moon River, the slow dance. I danced with Johnny Baumann and he held me very close. Close enough that Miss Silverstream walked by and put her hand in between our bodies to make sure proper distance was being maintained. But she winked at me when I spun around, which was quite shocking as one usually didn't see Miss S smile.
Johnny was a dreamboat that evening. He gave me a little bow towards the end of the night. I remember longing for my first kiss. Full of young school girl dreams and longings. The parents arrived around then so there was no loitering, but I waved goodbye to Johnny and went home to write in my diary and dream about him.
Johnny ended up moving later in the school year and I've lost touch with him, but I remember him as my first dance. My first longing. My first full body contact with a male.
My best cotillion ever.