Debutante Cotillions Return to Detroit

An organized effort to teach gentility has returned to Detroit after a decade of absence. WDET’s Rob St. Mary introduces us to the Cotillion Society of Detroit.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

For decades the Cotillion Club of Detroit offered the city’s African-American community a chance to teach Southern gentility to young ladies about to the face the adult world. But that effort came to an end in 1996, until the Cotillion Society of Detroit brought it back, last year.

“We loving bringing that Southern mentality to the Midwest…”

That’s President of the Cotillion Society of Detroit, Dr. Renita Clark.

“In the 1800s, debutante balls were used as a means for young women to meet men to marry. However, in year 2011, we are using the debutante season to educate young women about social graces, cultural refinement, engagement and community service and etiquette training.”

One of the young women taking part in this year’s event is Alexis Horton. The 17-year-old Cass Tech student says since September she’s been taking various classes including one on dining etiquette.

“Where the spoons and the folks go. Then we went in and took certain classes. We even had a self defense class where we learned how to protect ourselves if we had any danger. We had classes on money management and we had classes on public speaking and then we met our escorts and had our dances classes.”

Horton says one of the formal dances she’s learned is the waltz.

Horton says when she talks to her friends at school about being a debutante, most of them don’t know what it is.

“When I say I’m a part of the Cotillion Society or a debutante they say “What? What is that?” It’s such a different conversation from what I have with older adults… and they are like “Oh, you are a debutante, that’s something we haven’t heard about in a long time, I remember when we were little and we heard about that and it was a really nice thing to have.” My friends, they really think it’s cool. It’s unheard of, kind of sort of, it’s newer in a sense to our generation because our generation really didn’t know about it… so, even though it’s so old it’s becoming new again.”

Torya Blanchard is a former Detroit debutante. She was part of the final class of young ladies to go through the rite of passage before the Cotillion Club of Detroit disbanded in 1996.

“In my mind, it was just something that my mother wanted me to do. I really didn’t have an idea of what it was… then I kind of looked it up. A cotillion… you wear the big white dress, you curtsey… and I said to my mother “Why is this so important to you?” and… I just did it to be sweet and to do it. My heart wasn’t really into it at the time but after it was all said and done I feel in love with the whole process and the event.”

Blanchard says taking part in a cotillion as a debutante back in high school helped to refine her.

“When I was part of the cotillion, I was not your typical deb. I went to Redford High School I was kind of thing punk rock girl going to Redford High and I didn’t fit in there… I didn’t necessarily fit in at the cotillion either… but in the end it all came together… and I put on the white dress and I love every minute of it.”

Since the rebirth of the cotillion in Detroit last year, Blanchard and her business “Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes” have become sponsors.

Dr. Renita Clark says, in the end, the debutante season is really about instilling two key ideas in the girls: that they should give back to their community and there’s always room for a lady to be a lady.

“There is a place for proper etiquette and social grace and we are hoping that the activities that they have participated in during their debutante season will be impactful on their lives for their day to day living.”

As for Alexis Horton, she says being a debutante in Detroit in 2011 has been a very positive experience.

“It’s been a great experience to be around positive role models to be around positive women in our community who do wonderful things and to be able to meet this girls who have so much going on in their lives with school who are talented swimmers and dancers and being able to be around people who share the same interests as you and the same goals is a wonderful thing. It’s sort of a sisterhood.”

That sisterhood – the Cotillion Society of Detroit’s 2011 class of debutantes – will be presented Saturday night at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News

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