The students of junior cotillion learn how to shake hands, how to mingle, even how to dance.
But the goal of cotillion is not merely to teach children proper manners; it’s also to help them learn how to be comfortable in any situation, and how to show respect for others, said instructor Carey Sue Vega.
“I cover this right off, that they need to treat everyone with the same respect that they want to be treated with,” said Vega, local chapter director of the National League of Junior Cotillions.
Just as many executives and businesses are rediscovering etiquette training, more parents are also turning to it to help prepare their children for college and the business world. Vega has led the local chapter of NLJC for about eight years and said interest here in the metro has grown steadily as more people learn about the program. Junior cotillion is open to fifth-grade through high school students.
“It’s not hoity-toity, it’s not stuffy,” Vega said. “These are just commonalities that if everyone understands, and everyone knows when you shake someone’s hand you stand up straight and you look them in the eye ” and things like that ” it just makes the world a nicer place.”
Technology, she said, has played a “pivotal role in the demise of young people’s social skills,” but has also played a major role in the growing interest in etiquette training. Many kids spend much of their time online or on their cell phones, rather than engaging in face-to-face conversation.
“With the older kids, we really work on just engaging in polite conversation with your peers, and how you carry on a conversation with someone,” Vega said.
A junior cotillion season consists of five classes leading up to a formal dance. Each class includes both instruction and dancing, and the topics covered include everything from how to answer the telephone or how to thank someone to what to do at a four- or five-course meal.
Vega’s students also go on outings, seeing either a visiting Broadway show or a performance of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s pops series.
The program also covers European and Asian etiquette, something that’s frequently covered in etiquette training geared for executives, as more and more companies expand globally.
“We touch a little bit on some of the major things that if you travel overseas you’d want to be aware of so that you don’t embarrass yourself,” she said.
Kelley D. McGuire’s 10-year-old son is in his first year in the program. She also serves on Vega’s advisory council.
“Sometimes people have a misconception, they think it’s elitism ” it’s upper-crust, teaching your kid to act snotty ” but it has nothing to do with that,” McGuire said. “It’s really just teaching children how to become comfortable with all kinds of situations, and how to treat people with respect, so they’re comfortable going to a situation they’ve never been in.”
Ann Costello said her son and daughter’s confidence levels have grown during their four years there. She enrolled her children, hoping it would prepare them for talking to adults and interviewing for colleges and jobs.
“These are skills I think everybody needs to be able to fall back on,” Costello said.
Kat Eppler’s 13-year-old son just finished his third season in cotillion, which she said has helped him both be more considerate of others and more comfortable with people.
“He is very much aware of other people. He doesn’t even think twice about opening a door for a lady, or shaking hands with a gentleman, or introducing himself. He’s much less self-conscious,” Eppler said.
Cotillion is important because it exposes children to events and skills they wouldn’t encounter in their everyday lives, she added.
“It’s important for the young people to have this exposure, because what are they doing now? They’re in front of their Xboxes,” she said. “They’re not out there meeting and greeting people, and they’re going to need those skills later on.”
McGuire, area director at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma, said cotillion could help any child, including at-risk youth like those helped by organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters or the Boys and Girls Club.
“Any child could benefit from having manners, and knowing how to be comfortable in new situations. They only better themselves that way,” she said. “Lea Terry