Shall We Dance? Cotillion: For 30 years, Betty Huckenpoehler and Mary Louise Waters-Brice have been teaching etiquette and ballroom dancing to youngsters of middle-school age in Annapolis.

March 17, 1996|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

Somewhere in time - between ankle socks and pantyhose, in those minutes between a clip-on tie and a four-in-hand knot ladies and gentlemen are waiting.

Parents can not see them because they are lost among the sprouting limbs of adolescence or hiding behind the self-conscious masks of childhood. But Betty Huckenpoehler will bring them out.

Mrs. Huckenpoehler is headmistress of the Annapolis Cotillion. With the help of her long-time friend and partner, Mary Louise Waters-Brice, she guides middle-schoolers across the swaying rope bridge that leads from childhood into polite society.

For 30 years, the pair have taught etiquette and ballroom dancing to itchy, giggly young people who by the end of the season will fawn on them as if they were favorite schoolmarms from their now-distant childhood.

"Just one dance, and I have them hooked. I haven't lost one yet," says Mrs. Huckenpoehler, beaming across a crowded dance floor in the cafeteria of Annapolis High School.

The phonograph and scratchy 45s are as old as some of the parents who chaperon her eight wintertime dances: the Get Acquainted Dance, the Christmas Ball, the Snow Ball, the Fancy Dance, the Valentine Dance, Washington Birthday Ball, the Spring Fling, the See You in the Fall Ball.

And some of the steps she teaches the waltz, the cha-cha and the Charleston are older still. But the other lessons of the evening are timeless.

"Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats. Ladies, hands in your laps. Cross your ankles under your chairs. Gentlemen, feet on the floor and backs against the chairs. Remember: We talk, but not too loudly."

Mrs. Huckenpoehler, tiny and white-haired, holds the microphone and the children's attention with equal firmness. A coach's whistle hangs around her neck, and she's not afraid to use it.

She has been teaching dance since the 1940s, when she became one of Fred Astaire's select few, and the joints in her graceful limbs are stiff. "But put me in front of a crowd," she says, "and nothing hurts."

Boys are dressed in jackets, ties, dark pants, dark socks and dress shoes. This is required. No one need tell the girls to wear their party clothes. They arrive in trendy skirts and sweaters or prom dresses or in costumes that look like something their mothers wore in a girlfriend's wedding 20 years ago.

More than 125 of them scramble for the seats that circle the cafeteria. Enrollment in the Annapolis Cotillion has dipped and peaked with the times and the social climate, just as it has at the Naval Academy, where "tea dances" in the 1930s were the forerunner of the cotillion.

The old Carvel Hall hotel, where the cotillions were first held "was the social hub of town," says Mrs. Waters-Brice. But in the 1960s and 1970s, when such things were considered elitist and excluding, attendance was so small the dances might have been held in Mrs. Huckenpoehler's basement dance studio.

"It was such a good idea we just hung on," says Mrs. Waters-Brice. "We never thought of stopping it."

Civilizing experience

The cotillion is in powerful resurgence now, fed by parents who want a civilizing experience for their children. "That's because everybody loves people with good manners," says Mrs. Huckenpoehler.

The evening begins with a receiving line. The boys hold their arms like broken tree limbs and the girls try to slip their hands through without actually touching.

As the children approach the chaperoning parents, the boys politely release the girls as each attempts an impossible combination of simultaneous tasks: Look each adult in the eye, offer a firm handshake, say "good evening" and add the name written in delicate calligraphy on the grown-up's name tag.

"These skills are the lubricants that allow people to work in society," says Will Simmons, as his 10-year-old daughter, Jenny, approaches him in the receiving line. "The behavior is carefully scripted so the kids are not lost and confused, and there is no pressure about dating. The kids feel very grown-up."

Mrs. Huckenpoehler directs the evening's first dance. It is a ladies' choice, required often because girls so outnumber boys.

Showing respect

"And remember, gentlemen, when she approaches you and you have made eye contact, don't just sit there. Stand up and show her some respect.

"Even if it is not someone you like, dance anyway. It is only a dance."

This is almost painful to watch. The girls are lovely, in lace and satin and sparkles. They sh-sh-shush across the floor, wearing for the first time shoes without laces or straps. The girls are tall, and the boys grow smaller as they try to crawl inside their jackets. As they stand to greet the girls, they visibly retract, pulling their clenched fists inside their sleeves.

The children begin to waltz, but many try to do it without touching their arms raised in a pantomime of dancing. Soon, though, they are trading gossip and school news.

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