Cotillion took place at the Breakers Hotel. It was a series of luncheon/dances in which young ladies and gentlemen of Palm Beach learned the manners and skills required of the well born, and my diligent parents signed me up. Naturally, it was required that all future bastions of society dressed accordingly; stockings, white gloves and an appropriate dress for girls, jacket and tie for boys. The tables were set with pink tablecloths, tiny floral arrangements and the required bread dishes, glasses and multiple heavy silver forks, knives and spoons for the meal.
There was a matron who served as teacher and master of ceremonies who presided over us all with elegance, precision and wise counsel.
“Ladies and gentlemen, when you are seated, you may put the napkin on your lap. Keep in mind that the outside fork is for the salad. The glass to the right is yours. You may pick up a tea sandwich with your fingers, but french fries must be dispatched with knife and fork.” The meal progressed through the expected courses. “Soup is to be eaten skimming the surface of the soup with the spoon in motion away from oneself. No slurping noises please! Your roll is to be broken into bite sized portions with the fingers, one piece at a time, then buttered and popped into the mouth. Please remember, bread is to be consumed only after the meat has been served! When cutting anything on your plate, one must place the fork in one’s left hand with the tines pointing downward until the cutting is done. It is proper then, to place your knife on the rim of the plate and move your fork into your right hand in order to move the morsel to your mouth. And don’t forget- olive pits and any other unwanted items are to be transferred discreetly into ones hand and gently placed at the corner of one’s plate without comment. When you have finished eating, place your utensils together at the rim the plate so that your server knows you are done. Used napkins are to be folded and replaced next to the plate.”
The room was filled with a kind of malaise that only comes with the commingling of hormonal pre-teens of mixed sexes thrown together for a purpose that was not a little embarrassing. I imagine there was not a soul there who wouldn’t rather have made haste for the door, stripping off the shackles of the clothing and venue in favor of just about anything else.
As we ate, there was little conversation. Each “guest” was assigned to their place by a tiny card which read “Miss” or “Master” before their names. All of us wandered the sea of tables to find our spot fearful of which table we would be thrown in with. This way, boys and girls were seated together as likely strangers, and encouraged ineffectively toward friendly conversation with each other as is expected at social events. I cannot recall any conversation myself beyond the one in my head which repeated over and over, “How much longer?! How much longer?!” I kept my eyes on my plate as much as possible, straightening the hem of my dress under the table and generally doing whatever I might do that would go unnoticed to pass the time. At the moments I looked up, I noticed some of the boys sneering when the matron’s attention was turned elsewhere. It was expected that the “guests” had already been taught the basics of proper comportment at home, but we were there to learn the finer points and reinforce what we already knew.
After the meal came ballroom dancing etiquette and basic dance instruction. Standing on opposite sides of the room, the boys were expected to cross and graciously choose a partner. Girls were expected to accept the kind offer, no matter what their personal feelings were on the subject. It was a setup for unease in the extreme for most of the girls and it could not have been wonderful for most of the boys either. Inevitably, the best looking boys chose the prettiest girls at once, causing a kind of frenzied traffic jam wherever those girls stood. Then, as those girls were taken, things progressed through the remaining choices down to the wallflowers and the less attractive boys until all were matched up.
As I was quite short and immature looking, I knew I was not a prime choice. Sadly I waited, embarrassed as girl after girl was selected. I remember my horror at the moment in which there were the few boys left to make their choice, and I spotted an unnaturally tall and gangly individual with an unpleasant acne covered face look my way. He began to cross the large room in my direction, an Abraham Lincoln of a boy, his height far beyond his years and bodyweight and I averted my eyes hoping against hope that he was not coming for me. Ultimately, he arrived at my spot, and I was obliged to dance with the boy whose belt buckle was in closer proximity to my face than his head. I was mortified and felt sorry for him at the same time. He’d had not much choice but to choose me, and I’d had no choice but to accept this peculiar form of humiliation with as little visual dismay as I could muster.
Once we all had partners, the instruction in various dances began. Our social education was not complete without a rudimentary understanding of the Cha-cha, Rhumba, Foxtrot and Waltz. The matron suddenly produced a suitable partner for herself and we all stood at pre-dance attention, one hand holding our partners hand aloft, the other either on our partner’s shoulder or around the waist, heads turned and waiting for instruction. When dancing together, boys and girls were expected to keep a goodly distance from each other’s bodies. “One, two, three. One two three. Ladies, step to the right.” We went through the motions looking like our partners were the source of some sort of unpleasantness, which was being mitigated by the gulf of air between us. This was just fine with me, as it was already awkward enough. The only sorry bright spot in the whole transaction was imagining how perhaps someday, I might dance with someone more attractive, and might then know what to do. I have no doubt he felt the same way.
Eventually and mercifully, the occasion would end, and the “young misses” and “masters” were released to the waiting cars outside. They dispersed, ushered back to nearby homes, their parents reassured of their children’s inevitable entrance into the revered and lofty social circles of Palm Beach’s upper crust.
These scenarios repeated themselves with varying but similar outcomes throughout the duration of Cotillion season until its blessed end. I can only suppose my own parents, having come from humble beginnings, thought this was some sort of opportunity for me. I will never know for sure. I never asked.