For growing girls, a little bit of grace Charm: In Columbia, a six-week class transforms awkward youngsters into poised young ladies with an enhanced sense of confidence.

February 14, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

The class has no books, tests or lesson plans. But its students -- girls ages 5 to 13 -- graduate with skills they'll use every day: how to introduce themselves to strangers, use silverware in restaurants, walk with confidence.

In the new town of Columbia, Pinnie's Charm School unabashedly harks back to old-fashioned finishing schools and debutante balls. The six-week course includes instruction on posture, sitting, standing and walking -- promising to turn shy, awkward girls into poised young ladies who can command a room.

"I want my girls to know how beautiful they are -- I want them to have all the confidence and self-esteem in the world," says Pinnie Ross, owner and founder of the school. "Once you build it in yourself that you're beautiful, no one can touch you."

For nearly 25 years, Ross' students -- nearly all of them African-American -- have taken her lessons to heart. Such former students as film star Jada Pinkett, former Howard County Judge Donna Hill Staton and many others now in prominent positions believed Ross when she said they could do and be anything they wanted.

But first, they had to learn how to walk properly.

In a recent class at Ross' home in Columbia's Wilde Lake village, a new crop of girls -- some dressed in their Sunday best and others in jeans and sneakers -- fidgeted and squirmed in their seats as Ross gently lectured on posture from an African-American perspective.

"You always hear the saying, 'Stand against the wall for the best posture,' but that doesn't work for my girls," Ross says. "We're talking about black kids here. They have outstanding buttocks. That wall wasn't made for my girls."

She demonstrates with 9-year-old Kelly Richardson of Catonsville. "Now, shoulders held back at all times, buttocks tucked in, hands to your sides," Ross says. "Put your chin on an imaginary shelf. Imagine your favorite flavor of jelly is on the shelf -- and if you drop your chin, it's going to fall."

Kelly walks the length of Ross' living room, quietly reciting her teacher's script: "My name is Kelly Richardson, and I am beautiful and I am pretty and I am confident?" She looks to her teacher for reassurance.

"Yes," Ross says. "Wonderful. Now say it again, louder. Chin up."

Each girl takes her turn. Most seem painfully shy, giggling and fiddling with their clothes as they walk.

Instruction, which costs $10 per session, covers sitting: "Feel the back of the chair with your legs before you lower yourself, cross your feet at the ankles or not at all," Ross says.

Hand gestures: "Give your stance a boost."

And turning: "You're not supposed to hear the foot move in the back. Now swing your body all the way around, gracefully."

Ross watches over each girl, herself moving deliberately, adjusting small shoulders, hands and feet.

The girls say they enjoy Ross' instruction and promise to practice at home. But before coming to her house, some acknowledge, they were a bit hesitant -- unsure about charm school.

Would Ross criticize all the things that were wrong with them, wondered Jessica Cooper, 13, of Columbia.

Her mother, Lisa Cooper-Lucas, told her: "No, it's about what you can do right."

Usually, parents urge their daughters to enroll after hearing about the charm school from friends, neighbors or members of their church. Ross doesn't advertise.

Most want to help guide their daughters -- many of them in the throes of puberty -- through the awkwardness of adolescence.

"Kids need to learn how to interact with people and carry themselves," says Cooper-Lucas, who is a psychotherapist. "It's unfortunate that people don't appreciate the purpose of grace in everyday society. The vast majority of the world is so afraid of other people -- they don't have the skills to extend themselves. All we're talking about is a little bit of grace."

Such talk of etiquette and charm evokes bygone days when dating teens had chaperones and good girls didn't wear trousers.

Indeed, Ross insists women can be accomplished professionals without relinquishing their femininity. She draws the line at construction work, bus driving and pumping gas.

That may sound old-fashioned, but manners appear to be making a comeback, according to Dorothea Johnson, who runs the 40-year-old Protocol School of Washington in McLean, Va., which annually enrolls about 2,000 children and 750 adults, often diplomats.

"People used to have the idea that if you were being courteous, you were putting on airs," Johnson says. "But our enrollment is going up, and this training is very big in the South.

"The concept of a charm school may seem a bit outdated but we focus on leadership skills, building confidence and self-esteem."

As for Ross, she counts more than 500 students as having gone through her school. Many think of her as a second mother and call themselves "Pinnie's girls," says Hill Staton, a deputy state attorney general who studied under Ross more than 20 years ago.

"When I think about what I've had to do in the course of my academic career and professional career, I am sure my experience with Ms. Ross helps," Hill Staton says. "I can't think of what would have happened if I had to get up in front of a jury or a law school class without some preparation."

Ross tells her new students: "When you finish with this little course, you'll always walk with your head high. You won't be looking down -- there's nothing down there for you. When people see you, they'll know you are somebody."

The girls obey, their voices growing more confident during the hourlong sessions.

"My name is Adrienne Moody," says a petite Columbia 10-year-old, wearing a frilly dress with a big bow in the back. "I am beautiful and I am pretty and I am confident."

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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