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Friday, February 17, 2012

The Cotillion

Greetings all and thank you for your patience. The story you are about to read is all true, I lived it. For those who have seen the shorter version, the name has been change from "Don't Worry; it won't rain" to "The Cotillion", so as to be able to distinguish between them in our files.

For the curious about such details, we are expecting a high of 49 degrees in Fallon, Nevada, USA and the dogs are stretched out on the patio soaking up the sunshine. Mr S. is done with his medical appointments and back at his apartment feeding quail until they look like little footballs. If they had to migrate they would have to walk.

Here without further ado:

The Cotillion

Springtime brings cotillions in the South, and fair weather and pretty girls go together well. I was invited to attend one such soiree as a young man and even though it meant having to get dressed up, I liked the idea of being in the company of so many young ladies.

If you have never seen girls dressed in Southern Belle or Antebellum style dresses with the low front and corsets lifting their charms, you have no idea of how inspirational that can be to a young man. Of course it was all decent and you never really saw anything that you weren’t supposed to, but the idea was firmly planted in our minds as to what was there.

Guys that had to be reminded to tie their shoes and zip up their pants were looking for tuxedo rental deals. Young men who thought playing football was a graceful activity and that beer induced flatulence was humorous, all of a sudden had to learn to dance. Not only dance, but with someone and touching them in a polite way. We even had to practice the cotillion, which is basically a very fancy square dance in elegant clothing and lots of rules.

There is a certain poetic justice in young men having to learn the rules of etiquette to impress young women, after years spent developing crude and rude techniques of tormenting them. No off color jokes or comments are allowed and no inappropriate touching. You couldn’t even kiss your girlfriend.

With the help of my girlfriend and date for the event, I was able to locate a tuxedo that would fit and didn’t eat up my meager funds. At the time I thought it was pretty strange that the rental place was a florist shop in the front and a formal wear rental in the back. I have since found this to be very common and they do go together.

We arrived at the event in my parent’s big black Chevrolet Caprice, which looked like something that should be pulling up to a state dinner at the White House. The car certainly turned heads when we first entered the driveway, but they gave up on someone famous getting out when we parked at the far end of the exit loop so that we could get away if the dance turned out to be awful.

The cotillion was held at a very large red brick church which had a great location on a hilltop just outside of town and a commanding view of the hills and valleys around. There was a separate large hall with big double doors that opened wide and a hardwood floor inside but they could not get permission to move the furniture around inside to dance. I suspect that it was the dancing rather than the furniture moving that they objected to.  So a parquet dance floor was created outside on the hard red clay surface and chairs placed all around to sit down as we tired. That must have cost a bunch to rent and have installed, but it sure looked great!

The gala was planned as an afternoon and early evening event so it could be held outside and it would also be different from another similar cotillion which was held in the evening and all indoors. The politics and competition between two groups of women, all done “for their daughters,” was bitter and cutthroat to put it nicely. The lengths they would go to so that their “daughter’s” event was the most noticed would make a politician blush. I have been reminded of their actions in recent years by gang turf wars where tags were crossed out or painted over. Beauty parlors suffered mightily as threats of boycotts and financial ruin were hurled if a shop owner allowed the rival group to place a poster in the window. My girlfriend had to cross the river into South Carolina to go to a beauty shop outside of the “war zone”.

We arrived at the front door at the appropriate time and entered the building with style, being introduced from our required and professionally printed invitation cards, by a purely elegant older black man with gray hair and the nicest tuxedo I had ever seen. His voice was deep and clear and had a quality that reminds me now of James Earl Jones. I have had my name announced in many places in my lifetime, but none as well done as that time. At first I thought, who is he talking about? But then my brain caught up and I admit to feeling just a little touch of pride as I thought, cool, that’s me!

I felt a little odd as we had to walk down the center aisle of this church to the altar and then turn right and follow the carpet out of the main room. It looked a lot like a dress rehearsal for a wedding and every guy that I glanced at as we were doing this had a scared, “deer in the headlights” look on his face. Adding to the panic was the crowd of mothers sitting in the pews with cameras and tears in their eyes. I was right there with them, I almost succumbed to flight mode when my girl’s mother nodded at me and wrote something in a journal. I didn’t even know that she was going to be there, which I should have, but guys don’t process that kind of information well. Even at that young age I knew to just keep my mouth shut and smile and nod.

We went into a room set up for the fifty couples to sit in the middle and eat, while the guests lined the outside walls and watched us as they drank the champagne that we couldn’t have. Normally a cotillion had a dance floor either in the center of the room with tables around it, or at one end with a clear center lane to promenade through. Due to the policy of the church we couldn’t do either, thus the outdoor dancing area.

It may seem bizarre, but this was the first time that I gotten a good look at the other forty-nine young ladies and I instantly forgot about the old folks. “Wow!” can not accurately describe the beauty and hotness in formal gowns that filled that room. You were under such restrictions in speech and actions that all you could do was to try not to be caught staring and keep your eyes moving and remember to close your mouth. Everyone was watching every move you made. Politeness was the prime rule and we did our best to not be the “one” who messed up. Your life was over in this society if you were that “one”. It worked out well that I wasn’t allowed to focus on the “everybody’s watching you” thing, or I probably would have bolted out the door.

My girlfriend was a lot of fun and was very discretely commenting on the girls to me with insider information that was designed to keep my face red. She had a wicked sense of humor and making me squirm was high on her priority list. This girl was forced into the society role by a mother who wanted status, pure and simple, because she certainly didn’t care about the game.

We finished eating what little we dared to eat for fear of spilling anything and excused ourselves from the table and went outside. What a terrific waste of food I thought, because we were all so terrified of getting messed up that we couldn’t eat, but then I looked back inside. The crowd who had been watching us had descended upon the banquet and it was obvious that they were not worried about wearing the meal. Red ants at a picnic had nothing on these folks.

The decorating committee had out done themselves and had placed decorations everywhere. It looked like almost all of it was very light and much of it made from tissue paper. The dance area had overhead strings of crepe paper and paper lanterns floating in the air on very thin line of some kind that was nearly invisible and made it look like the items were just floating there by magic. It would be really cool in the dark all lighted up.
As we stood outside admiring the set up and noting that there was a lot of red dirt in the area, the breeze came up a little. I certainly didn’t mind as I was roasting in the tuxedo and I was worried about sweating when the dancing started.

The beautiful ladies started coming outside and I was paying close attention to them and holding onto my girlfriend’s arm when the two girls in charge of the dance stopped next to us and posed the question, “What if it rains?” to the matron of the cotillion. She said with complete confidence in her ability to control the situation, “Don’t worry. It will NOT rain.” We should have run then, but we were young; we didn’t know any better. She had thrown the gauntlet down to Mother Nature!

The music had begun and the people were gliding, or nearly so, about the makeshift dance arena when the gust of wind hit that smelled like rain to me. Being raised in the much wetter south Florida clime, I was wary of sudden downpours. Where I grew up they could and would hit, regardless of weather forecasts and we learned to trust our noses.

It was twilight and the clouds’ advance had been hidden by the fading light so no one noticed. I smelled the rain coming and told my date that we needed to get away from the red dirt or I would be buying a tuxedo and her beautiful dress would get ruined. She didn’t need any more persuasion than that to leave.

Have you ever seen what happens to tissue and crepe paper when it gets wet? Or, how fast red dirt becomes mud with the properties of superglue and red paint? I have, it’s not a pretty sight.

We warned the girls that rain was coming and they said in unison and with perfect conviction, “No it isn’t; Momma said so.” No one dared cross Momma, even the rain, at least in their minds.

We were already in the car when the cloudburst hit, having done our best to avoid the crowd and scampering around the outside of the building, ducking in only long enough to grab her wrap.

The kids moved inside the big hall with the double doors and I’m sure incurred the wrath of church officials with their muddy feet and loud behavior.

The Matron of the Cotillion, the woman in charge, was standing in the rain all by herself, looking up defiantly when we drove off. I could have easily envisioned her extending her middle finger skyward, except that just wasn’t done, even if you really, really wanted to.  I’m not sure if she was ordering the rain to stop or just what, but it had by the time we reached my house. We certainly were not going back.

We heard all kinds of tales of rain ruined decorations and fancy attire stained by the red clay mud. There were complaints and charges of damages by the church board, refusal of deposit return for the rain soaked parquet floor and much more to be sure. None of which made it to print.

The review which ran in the Augusta Chronicle told a fabulous, if fanciful, tale of a superb soiree of the first order, the envy of all young ladies of proper societal standing. The meal was elegant, the dancing flawlessly executed, the comportment of those participating of the highest standard. And so on.

“Spin” is not a new game you see, image was everything then too. If you weren’t there you only have that version to go by and those in charge made sure that their version was the only one talked about. The cotillion wars go on and probably always will, at least in the South.

I am glad that I got the chance to see how it worked, it was as they say, an experience.

It took me nearly forty years before I put on another tuxedo and I must tell you, I still check the weather forecast and look for red clay when I do. n


  1. I am not sure why readers are having so much difficulty being able to comment. Feel free to comment via FB if you would like to.

    1. Enjoyable story, Mr. S. I never attended a Cotillion but attended lots of high school dances, The Prom, and some soirees with my fellow Job's Daughters. I have many fond memories of these dances back in Maryland