Debutantes & Cotillions
The Origins and Rich History of Black Debutante Balls
WHO IS A DEBUTANTE?
Definition: A debutante or deb (from the French débutante, “female beginner”) is a girl or young woman of an aristocratic or upper-class family who has reached maturity and, as a new adult, comes out into society at a formal “debut”. Originally, the term meant the woman was old enough to be married, and part of the purpose of her coming out was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families with a view to marriage within a select circle.
History: In the United States, a cotillion or debutante ball in is a formal presentation of young ladies, debutantes, to “polite society,” typically hosted by a charity or society. The ladies introduced can vary from the ages of 16 to 18 (younger ages are more typical of Southern regions, while older are more common place in the North) in some areas 15- and 16-year-olds are called “junior debutantes.”
To gain entrance to a debutante ball, debutantes must usually be recommended by a distinguished committee or sponsored by an established member of élite society, typically their mothers or other female relatives. Wearing white gowns and satin or kid gloves, the debutantes stand in a receiving line, and then are introduced individually to the audience. The debutante is announced and then is walked around the stage, guided by her father who then presents her. Her younger male escort then joins her and escorts her away. Each debutante brings at least one escort, sometimes two. Many debutante balls select escorts and then pair them with the debs to promote good social pairings. Cotillions may be elaborate formal affairs and involve not only “debs” but junior debutantes, escorts and ushers, flower girls and pages as well. Every debutante must perform a curtsy or a bow.
Debutante balls exist in nearly every major city in the United States but are more common and larger affairs in the American South.
WHAT IS A DEBUTANTE BALL OR COTILLION?
Definition: French cotillion, from Old French, petticoat, diminutive of cote, coat.
1. A cotillion is a formal ball, especially one at which young women are presented to society
2. A lively dance, originating in France in the 18th century, having varied, intricate patterns and steps, a quadrille, music for these dances.
In American usage, a Cotillion is a formal ball, often the venue for presenting Debutantes.
History: The cotillion is a formal social dance that began in the early 18th century Europe by French royalty. Later it became popular in England among families of nobility and white families in the United States of great wealth, especially in the South. In the early 20th century, some affluent black families adapted the tradition.
At the dance girls were introduced to society, primarily the family’s social and business network. The goal was to prepare the girls to find husbands. During a training period they practiced good behavior, learned dining etiquette, basic dance steps, and how to dress. The training, dance, and presentation transformed the girls into debutantes.
By the 1940s national black fraternities, sororities, civic and social organizations formed the black social structure in African American communities. Through local chapters the cotillion gained popularity, included girls from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, and featured self-confidence and leadership skills, and offered scholarships and other incentives. African American Cotillion and Beautillion (for young men) programs offer exposure to area such as etiquette, appropriate dress, and civic involvement. They also sometimes feature a competitive element in essay writing or talent.
THE CONVENT AVENUE BAPTIST CHURCH RENAISSANCE DEBUTANTE COTILLION
The Renaissance Debutante Program is an enrichment program initiative that takes place over at least eight Saturday sessions. The program provides training for young ladies in the areas of Christian values, etiquette, social graces, career and cultural exploration, and equips them with the tools to enhance their self-confidence and develop their leadership potential.
The Debutante experience is also designed to emulate “a rite of passage” program that prepares young ladies for a successful transition from high school into the world at large. The enrichment activities culminate in the presentation of the young ladies at the Renaissance Debutante Cotillion Ball.
At the Cotillion, one young lady is crowned “Miss Renaissance Debutante”, along with other special merit awards given to other participants. Our hope is that this evening of elegance is one of the most memorable moment in their lives, and a celebrated transition into young womanhood.
The success of previous cotillions is a true testament of the effectiveness of the program in helping young ladies become focused, independent and determined to succeed. Many of our past program participants are currently in college pursuing their educational and career goals, or in the community in their careers and giving back in various ways.