Debs at city cotillion combine practicality with stardust reveries

November 01, 1991|By Jean Marbella

They've practiced the low curtsy, chins nearly touching the floor and eyes lowered in deference. They've been fitted into white gowns that float like parachutes. They've learned to waltz, to set a dinner party table, to use the right fork, to serve their community and to take an interest in culture.

And tomorrow night, after six months of preparation, these 16 girls will step out of their ordinary lives and, to the fanfare of music, form a fairy-princess line through a ballroom downtown, each one of them the belle of her own reverie.

They will be debutantes: not the favored daughters of wealthy white fathers, members of some private club. These girls are mostly black, the daughters of working- and middle-class families, and their clubs are the park and recreation programs of the City of Baltimore, which is their sponsor Saturday night.

For a time that night, in the space of a ballroom, among these young women and their dates and families, the city that reads will try to lay aside the urban concerns about drugs and crime and random violence, and become the city that minds its manners.

And if some people wonder why a city whose young sometimes seem under siege by guns would choose to stage a debutante ball -- well, the organizers say, that is precisely why a cotillion for city teen-agers needs to be held.

"It's even more important in today's world," declared Marlyn Perritt, the director of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, which organized this first-ever city-sponsored cotillion. "We need to involve our youth in something positive, something that shows them they can have respect for themselves and respect for their parents."

Ms. Perritt brought the idea to Baltimore from her previous job in Washington, D.C., a city that has held a cotillion for the past five years.

The girls were recruited from recreation and parks programs -- some are athletes on city-sponsored teams, for example, others are volunteers at the centers -- and asked to meet several requirements. They had to be city residents and seniors in high school, have good grades, not be mothers or currently pregnant and have references from teachers or other adults -- and all but one of the applicants qualified, said Zenobia McLendon, the cotillion chairwoman.

The girls also had to sell about $500 worth of souvenir book ads and ball tickets, at $35 a head, which went toward the expenses of renting the Mariott-Inner Harbor Grand Ballroom and paying for their custom-made gowns. (The Parks and Recreation Department said that the event is expected to break even and that no city funds, except for the staff time involved, will be spent for the ball.)

And they seem untroubled by the elite white genesis of cotillion balls. Black clubs and sororities such as Links and Delta Sigma Theta, for example, have long sponsored annual cotillions here.

Baltimore has a tradition of such events. The Half Century Ball, before fading out in the hard Depression years of the early 1930s, was a parallel event to the traditionally white Bachelors Cotillon.

For some of the debutantes, the cotillion is just a glorified prom, or something like a beauty pageant in which they get to put on the ritz and, in Ms. Perritt's words, "fulfill their life's dream of being a star."

"I just think it'll be really fun to dress up and look pretty," said Felicia Boone, 17, and one of the top students in her senior class of City College.

"It's done a lot for me," Ms. Boone, who lives in the Loch Raven area, said of the weekly workshops on topics such as leadership, career and etiquette that she and the other debs participated in. "I find myself watching which fork I pick up when I eat. You could easily embarrass yourself if you don't know that. It's just general manners and things. It's making ladies out of us."

Ms. Boone, who hopes to study chemical engineering in college -- the University of Michigan is her top pick, although she's also applied to Harvard, Princeton, Penn and Johns Hopkins -- believes that while cotillions have a history of elitism, this one is different.

"It used to be done with lawyers' daughters, doctors' daughters," said Robin Litz, 17, who lives is Curtis Bay and is a senior at Poly.

"We're a bunch of girls able to stay out of trouble, so far."

"It's good for my resume, and it'll help in college," said Nicole Potts, 17, a student at Carver Vo-Tech High School. "That's one of the good things about it -- [other girls] might look up to me, they might have a child who looks at me and says, 'I want to be debutante.' "

To some observers, however, a cotillion -- no matter how democratic and interracial -- remains in its heart and soul a cotillion, with all the historical baggage weighing it down.

"It's part of a legacy; it's part of a heritage, a patriarchal one," said Faye Harrison, an anthropologist at the University of Tennessee and president of the Association of Black Anthropologists.

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