Rite of Passage: Little Rock Junior Cotillion

Originally appeared in Little Rock Family, September 16, 2010

By Jennifer Pyron

A friend of mine reminded me yesterday that it's time to send in applications to Little Rock Junior Cotillion for our fifth graders. It took me by surprise for many reasons. First, how can my son possibly be old enough for this rite of passage? Second, I never in my wildest dreams imagined I'd have a child participating in the program.

Here are my memories of Cotillion, as previously published in Little Rock Soiree:

In early December 1982, tornadoes ripped through Little Rock and tore up the neighborhood where I lived. My block of North Pierce Street in The Heights was miraculously spared significant damage, but we were without power for nearly a week.

While this was fun at first, by the time Saturday night rolled around, I was in the middle of a real tween crisis. I was in sixth grade, after all, and what did every self-respecting sixth grader do every other Saturday night? We dressed up and attended Little Rock Junior Cotillion at the Little Rock Racquet Club.

Cotillion was quite a big deal in those years and from what I understand is still going strong today. Mrs. Ellen Butts founded the program in 1948 as a method of teaching good manners, social graces and dance steps to children in grades 6-9. You had to apply to be accepted, and there was really no guarantee that you'd get in. Preference was given to legacies, and luckily I was one. The story goes that in fifth grade I said to my mom, "I'm sure to get into Cotillion, 'cause I'm a legend." To which she casually replied, "No dear, you are a legacy. Your father is the legend."

The thrill of those early days of Cotillion is almost indescribable. The new dresses -- fabulously frothy ones with lots of taffeta and ruffles. The new shoes -- high heels with open toes. The panty hose -- a lovely shade of "nude." The white gloves -- required by Mrs. Butts and with a pearl button that fastened on the inside of the wrist. I was also the lucky recipient of a hand-me-down rabbit's fur coat from my next-door neighbor. Such glamour!

So on this night, standing in my mother's bathroom by the soft glow of the camping lantern, I was completely beside myself. "How am I going to curl my hair?" I whined to my mother, who was trying valiantly to convince me that this was some great adventure. "How am I going to put on my eye shadow?"

Mother gathered up all my things and drove me to my grandparent's house that blessedly had power. There, in my grandmother's pink tile bathroom amidst embroidered hand towels and hand soaps in the shape of roses, I completed my routine of tightly curling my bangs into a configuration resembling a roll of coins and carefully covering my eyelids in iridescent blue and pink eye shadows mere minutes before the carpool arrived.

As our carpool made its way down Cantrell to Foxcroft, my friends and I were all atwitter. Who would we dance with? What boys would talk to us? Would we get to do the Military Shuffle?

I still remember the glow of the upper room of the Racquet Club as we rounded the corner for drop off that night. The nervous anticipation as we ascended the stairs, pausing to shake Mrs. Butt's gloved hand before taking our place along the wall. Girls on the left. Boys on the right. A drum beat announced the start of the Grand March. And we began.