Making of a debutante

14 young women will be presented at Black Youth in Action's annual Debutante Ball

November 23, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Fourteen young women, elegantly dressed in full-length white gowns, high-heel shoes and long gloves, will walk into Richlin Ballroom tonight on the arms of their tuxedo-clad fathers, grandfathers or family friends. After presenting their mothers with a red rose, they will dance one waltz with their escort and another with a young man of their choosing.

After more than six months of workshops on issues that included money management, communication, charm and poise, and many hours of community service projects, these high school students are presenting themselves to society in the 30th annual Debutante Ball, organized by the Black Youth in Action.

"The ball is the best ever!" said Tynetta Jackson, 17, the 2007 ball queen, who crowns her successor tonight. "It was a beautiful night that I really appreciated."

Before the evening ends, each debutante will receive a sash, a gift, a floral bouquet and a college scholarship, funded by proceeds from the ball.

The debutantes practice nearly two months for the dance, which is the crowning event of activities that "brought me out in society and connected me to a lot of people," Jackson said.

Mazie R. Taylor, 88, will be there, as she has every year.

"I love the way these children look so proud and accomplished," she said.

A retired Harford County teacher, Taylor helped found Black Youth in Action in 1972, a few years after county schools were integrated.

"We named the group so people would know we were doing something uplifting and culturally related to these children's upbringing," Taylor said.

The idea for a debutante ball for African-American girls helped fill a void in a county that three decades ago offered little in the way of activities to its minority students, she said.

Vickie Pace Washington, a 1982 debutante and one of four previous debs who will be recognized this evening, said the preparations and the ball "gave me a lot of confidence and pride about myself. There should always be something like this to help you know who you are and where you come from."

For many, like Washington, the event has become a family tradition. Her daughter, Ciara Washington, 16, is a debutante this year.

"There never was any question about that," said Vickie Washington.

Former debutante Ann Marie Copland said shyness overwhelmed her teenage years as one of the few African-American students at Bel Air High School in the 1970s. The ball helped "bring me out and build relationships," she said. Years later, she married the young man who acted as her marshal on that evening in 1979.

The young men who serve as marshals wear a white tuxedo with tails and do a bit of entertaining for the crowd. This year, the marshals will each give a rendition of a character from black history and perform a jazz dance.

Gladys Pace, Vickie's mother, Ciara's grandmother and president of the Black Youth in Action, said the ball "provides opportunities for these girls to mature and grow. It is amazing to see the difference in their outlooks from beginning to end of this. They really mature."

Taylor taught Pace at Central Consolidated High School, one of two high schools in the county for black students at the time.

"I think segregation in our schools was why Ms. Taylor started this organization," Pace said. "She felt a need to develop programs, especially for these girls. Now this organization is rich with opportunities."

Pace graduated in 1964 and went on to Harford Community College and what is now Bowie State University, and earned a graduate degree from Loyola College. She retired after a long career in Harford schools, serving many years as principal at Aberdeen Middle School.

Black Youth in Action has helped establish lifelong friendships among its many volunteers, who include educators, business owners and Harford's newest Circuit Court judge, Angela Eaves, choreographer of the ball.

"This is a sisterhood thing that can last a lifetime," said volunteer Bonita Buchanan.

Many debutantes join that sisterhood, said Joyce Kearney, chairwoman of the deb committee. They enter the program as shrinking violets and leave full of confidence and usually with many friends made during the experience, she said.

At dress rehearsal last week, 16-year-old Essence Perkins, who will be the first to enter the ballroom, grasped the arm of her escort, an Army sergeant who is standing in for her late father.

"I am excited about everything, getting dressed up and especially giving my mom a rose and a kiss," she said.

Before leaving the rehearsal, one father asked for a copy of the waltz music so he could practice the steps with his daughter at home.

As the evening winds down, Pace knows from experience that she will be handling requests.

"After every ball, we have parents come up to us and say they want their daughter to do it next year," Pace said. "We never turn anyone away."

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