Hard work brings a Cinderella evening

April 10, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

In late October, about two dozen young Baltimore women trickled into a dim classroom in the Mount Royal Recreation Center in Bolton Hill. Dressed neatly, they scrunched themselves into small chairs and sat quietly, mesmerized by video images of swirling white ball gowns and the sound of violin-heavy waltzes.

"I just get a feeling inside whenever I look at this; it just does something to me inside," said Desirae Raines, a senior at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, as the tape of the city's 1994 Youth Cotillion played over and over on a television set.

That feeling returned Saturday night -- only stronger -- as Desirae and 14 other debutantes, and their escorts, who had been

through five months of dance lessons and etiquette training, took part in this year's Youth Cotillion.

In flowing white gowns of their own, and attended by 24 younger teens, the debutantes, all high school seniors, held the spotlight in a ballroom of the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel. It was an evening of waltzes and curtsies, shimmering satin and dainty hankies, bow-ties and cummerbunds.

And the uncertain, self-conscious young women chosen from those who had gathered months earlier in the recreation center classroom had been transformed -- they were poised, confident and graceful.

But don't mistake the Youth Cotillion for the exclusive country-club traditions that predate it. Participants for this event -- sponsored since 1991 by the city Department of Recreation and Parks -- aren't chosen for their family income or status.

The teen-agers, from middle-class neighborhoods such as Waverly and Gardenville, are recruited from the ranks of young ++ people who volunteer as tutors and coaches, or do other work at city recreation centers. Dresses for the debutantes and attendants are designed and hand-sewn by volunteers.

And though the girls do learn how to waltz and how to set a formal table, the cotillion is as much about instilling self-esteem as it is about teaching social graces.

"We're looking for a positive attitude, interest, motivation and commitment," said cotillion coordinator Zenobia McClendon at the October interviews for prospective participants. "We're not looking for the polish, because that will come."

And it did come -- after months of work.

A week after the interviews, at a reception, many teen-agers had just a vague notion of what lay ahead. A few seminars and dance lessons, then a big ball, they said.

But what lay ahead was key to their transformation. They attended workshops and rehearsals, worked on community service projects and took part in other activities every Saturday.

In one session, Dr. Harry Smith of Baltimore City Community College gave the teen-agers a rapid-fire lesson in impromptu public speaking. Pointing to his victims at random, he told them to stand up, say their name and state their goals -- leaving barely a second between speakers.

"Speak up," he ordered some.

"Takes you too long," he told others before passing them over.

After calling on almost everyone, Dr. Smith's voice softened: "If you're planning to be a leader, in terms of developing your own skills, it's very important to understand communication. If you speak well and write well, you don't even have to know what you're talking about."

Dance classes

Since January, most of the Saturday meetings -- as well as a few Sunday afternoons and weeknights -- were spent on dance lessons.

In a tile-floored cafeteria at the recreation center, Jerene DeShields put the debutantes, escorts and fathers through their paces.

"Starting with the right foot, everybody's right foot steps forward and then out, then cross it behind," she said at a January rehearsal, her insistent voice providing the rhythm for the circle of couples. "Step on it . . . try it again . . . forward out and back step, step."

The debutantes and their escorts -- many wearing bulky construction boots -- struggled through the delicate steps of "The Skaters Waltz." When Ms. DeShields turned on the tape of lilting waltz music for the first time, someone in the circle said, "The music's messing me up."

But Ms. DeShields -- who described her heavy-handed teaching style as "trying to get the street out of them, and put the ballroom in them" -- would not relent.

"You're going to dream of this music," she said. "You're going hate this music, but you're going to do it, and it's going to be beautiful."

And a few weeks later they looked more graceful, though they still counted the steps under their breath.

Community service

After some Saturday lessons, the teen-agers spent several hours on community service projects. They cleared leaves at Carrie Murray Recreation Center in Leakin Park. They held a New Year's party for abused children. And they attended workshops on topics such as leadership, money management and personal appearance.

They came to recognize the value of the lessons and volunteer work, as well as the socializing that took place between.

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