Resurrection WALTZ

With gowns and grace and a few dance lessons, the girls of Northern High make a bow to tradition -- and have a ball.

Cover Story

June 11, 2000|By Story by Jonathan Pitts | Story by Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is an excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things."

-- Philippians 4:8

In a word, Herbert Ellis was skeptical. He'd heard ideas like this from his daughter before. Sure, her brainstorms always sounded good -- for an hour or two, maybe for a day -- but in the end, they seemed to give way. To boredom. To inertia. To the pessimism of peers. "Kids bring each other down so much today," he says.

Come to think of it, didn't the idea border on the preposterous? After all, weren't we talking about Northern High -- the Northern High -- one of the roughest schools in Baltimore, a place that until recently was so unsafe the principal asked visitors not to enter certain stairwells? A place where, just a year and a half ago, kids were scared to go to lunch and 1,200 were suspended in a single day?

A debutante ball? A Northern High debutante ball?

But as a parent, there was so much Ellis hadn't seen. He hadn't been there the day Northern's new principal, Helena Nobles-Jones, called her staff together and drew up a list of the school's top young women, or when Letitia Richards, the history teacher, volunteered two hours a week to coordinate the event. He didn't realize Northern had called on Gwendolyn Biddle, a retired dance teacher who had run dozens of cotillions in her life, to direct. He hadn't seen the girls meet two times a week for eight months to learn to bow with dignity, to enter rooms with grace, to dance with style.

Most of all, he hadn't reckoned on the simple fun his 18-year-old daughter Brandi, a junior, would have with her two best friends, Cassandra Manning and Diara Dukes, and 40 other girls. "We had a good time," says Brandi. "We got a chance to do something positive. We didn't really care what anybody thought."

So Ellis, movie-star handsome in his black tie and tails, drove his daughter to Martin's West, a formal banquet facility, one Sunday in late May, and the 45-year-old minister-in-training watched in wonder as the fete unfolded.

He saw the girls, tall and elegant in the ivory gowns they'd chosen, posing for pictures and prancing for videocameras. He could have heard them through the Bridal Room door as they fussed with their hair, powdered their faces and tittered over their young escorts. He even got a lesson of his own: Ms. Biddle, 75 years old and about half his size, seized him at the last minute for a waltz lesson. "Right, front, together," she barked. "Left, front, together! Follow me, now; you'll do just fine!"

And later, he looked on with a smile as the debutantes, one at a time, entered the main hall. Two underclassmen came out first, holding bouquets and striding with elegance. Each deb followed, pink carnations in her arms, majestically alone in the ballroom's center aisle. Each one bowed deeply and offered a hand to a young escort, graceful as a settling swan.

And the speeches: How could he fail to be moved by those speeches? Principal Nobles-Jones, towering and regal at the podium, opened the remarks. "It's heartwarming to see you all in your white dresses," she said. "Just seeing you is a dream come true." Assistant principal Grover Rook sang a song he'd written for the evening: "You don't have to be Halle Berry," he crooned, "or even Mariah Carey; all you have to be is yourself." Senior Kelly Dukes, named Cotillion Queen on the strength of her good citizenship and perfect grade-point average, said, "You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it." Shouted the crowd: "Yes, you can!"

Finally, keynote speaker Katina Webster, a special ed instructor in Baltimore County, captured the essence of the occasion. "Today, [your] fear turns into determination," she said, her eyes flashing. "Today, you see failure as success waiting to happen. Today, you have the tools to get what you want without losing who you are."

Maybe Ellis didn't truly understand until days later, when he pondered what had taken place. No one could remember a Baltimore public school staging a cotillion. He thought of grown-ups like Richards and Biddle who had helped make it happen. Most of all, he thought of the young people. "They got away from the whole boom-box scene, the whole rap scene," he says. "They weren't carrying guns. They weren't half-dressed. They had a chance to be young ladies, to be recognized for who they are. And they did it all themselves."

But maybe, in the end, it was even simpler than that. Maybe it all came down to the dance.

After the coming-out ceremonies that night, girls paired off with their fathers for a ceremonial waltz. Maybe Brandi and her dad did collide once or twice -- "I was so out of practice," he says -- and perhaps they did dissolve into raucous laughter at one point. More important -- to Brandi, to the cotillion, to Northern High in general -- Herbert Ellis was there, in body and mind, enjoying the company of the beautiful and classy young woman he has raised.

They laughed as they moved to the music. They looked into each other's eyes. They were a stunning couple.

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