Ain't Misbehavin'

Coatillion at Army Navy Country Club
Writer Paul J. Williams studies up on social graces at a high school cotillion class. (J. Carrier for The Wasington Post)
By Paul J. Williams
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 16, 2006

I have a complicated relationship with proper manners. My mother says that as a child, I had a tendency to try to eat under the table at restaurants. And once, when I was about 3 and didn't like the way some "old ladies" were looking at me, I chucked my hot dog and french fries at them.

I realize now I was wrong to do that. French fries should never be wasted.

Twelve years of public education improved my accuracy with ballistic foodstuffs but did little for my etiquette. College was a haze of tailgates and keg stands. Now, my girlfriend jokes that she's afraid to go away by herself for more than a few days because she thinks I'll go feral.

Well, enough is enough. At age 29, living in a cosmopolitan city, my social calendar loaded with weddings and formal dinners, I need a manners overhaul. I want to discover the easy elegance of a Fred Astaire or James Bond (Sean Connery era, of course). I want to drink Scotch with the guy on the Monopoly box. I want to bury my uncouth past and acquire a sophisticated air. I want to learn to be, yes, a gentleman!

Clearly, I require professional help. So I contact Erin Watson and Beth Kelly of the National League of Junior Cotillions. They're sympathetic to my cause and invite me to attend a high school-level cotillion class they teach at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington.

I'm anxious when I arrive, and the fact that I'm greeted by two etiquette students half my age with twice my poise doesn't help settle my nerves. But it's too late to turn back on my Gatsby-by-way-of-Billy Madison effort.

Watson and Kelly meet me in the club's main ballroom. They inform me we'll learn how to seat a lady and how to approach her to dance, how to serve oneself at an hors d'oeuvres table ("aggressively" is not the answer) and how to write thank-you notes. We will also practice several types of dance steps.

Wait, what?

"I hope you have your dancing shoes on," Watson says.

I assure her I do not, nor do I have any shoes with much dance experience. She cheerfully tells me my brown loafers will work just fine. They never have before, I think to myself, as memories of nightmarishly awkward high school dance experiences bubble in my head. I am prepared to improve my manners; my footwork is another story.

Soon I'm sitting with Kathleen Moore, a friend of Watson and Kelly's who helps teach the class. Sixty seats are arranged in a circle around the ballroom. We're near the entrance as the high school couples filter in. The couples greet either Watson or Kelly, then begin to seat themselves, starting on the far side of the room and working around the circle.

Ranging in age from 14 to 17, the girls are uniformly stylish in dresses and skirts. The boys, in gold-buttoned blazers and khakis of arbitrary lengths, are a little more hit-or-miss.

The etiquette lessons take hold right away. The boy sits on the left and girl sits on the right, and by way of helpful reminder, there's a pair of white cotton gloves on each girl's seat.

Moore narrates for me as the couples sit: Boy seats girl first, so he's facing her as she sits. He then pivots into his seat, making sure to keep his backside out of her line of sight. Boy unbuttons jacket, girl crosses feet at ankles.

Okay, not bad so far, and that backside rule is brilliant, both practical and obvious. But what are the gloves for, I ask? Moore tells me they're to absorb perspiration on the girls' hands. No one wants a dance partner with sweaty palms. I consider my own palms, slightly damp since the "dancing shoes" discussion. Shouldn't the boys wear them, then?

"We're so polite, we'll absorb it for both of us," she says.

Shortly, I'm introduced to Lauren Oliver, 16, who goes to Yorktown High School in Arlington. She took her first dance lessons at 2, took her first cotillion class at 12, completed the two-year program and has been a teaching assistant for the past two years.

Lauren Oliver is the LeBron James of cotillions.

Which is probably why she's been assigned as my dance partner-instructor-herder. We start in the "open" position, girl's palms up, boy's down, and we're doing the box step, or the fox trot, or the fox step, or whatever. Kelly calls out the steps and we're moving left, right, forward, back, left, right, forward, back. Oliver nimbly evades my feet, and by watching her and the others, I'm soon competent enough I stop worrying about crippling anyone.

Kelly tells everyone to switch partners, and the boys slide one to the right. We make our way around about a quarter of the circle in this fashion, before we're told to take a "closed" position. At their first class, many couples considered a closed position to mean the boy's hands on the girl's waist, her hands on his shoulders, both at a rigid arms-length apart.

I see nothing wrong with this.

What it actually means though, Kelly explains over the microphone, is my left hand holds her right at the eye level of the shorter dancer, while my right hand goes on her left shoulder. In short order, I'm halfway through the circle.

The class continues: I learn about buffet tables (a gentleman should offer to get a plate of food for a lady), thank-you notes (they should be prompt and personalized) and more. For instance, did you know that salt and pepper shakers should always be passed together? I had no idea.

Then, there's more dancing. I'm a new man, eager to embrace the challenge of the cha-cha. Everyone's very patient and encouraging, and after a bit I'm not even preemptively apologizing to each new dance partner.

As class ends, several kids kick off their shoes and stick around to practice their steps. I eye them wistfully. If only I had started at their age, who knows where I would be now. A diplomat? A CEO? "Dancing With the Stars"?

I do feel more civilized and more confident. I've learned that etiquette isn't about wealth or status, or about using the fork on the far left first. It's about being engaged and aware of the people around you, about being comfortable with yourself and making those around you comfortable.

Even while you're stepping on their feet.

Etiquette Classes

Coatillion at Army Navy Country Club,
"One, two, three, one, two, three . . ." Emily Buonforte, 16, and Matt Jacobeen, 15, lead the line in the waltz.(J. Carrier - For The Washington Post)
International Association of Protocol Consultants. A three-day seminar about international business etiquette starts May 5 at the Willard Intercontinental in Washington. The seminar costs $4,295. P.O. Box 6150, McLean, 703-759-4272, .

The International School of Protocol. Classes about manners and etiquette for children, teenagers and professionals, often offered through Howard County Recreation & Parks. On April 27 at 7 p.m. is a two-hour Social Savvy class for adults, which costs $45 and takes place at Long Reach High School in Columbia. 222 Schilling Cir., Suite 130, Hunt Valley, Md., 410-771-6900, .

The Lett Group. Conducts business etiquette and international protocol seminars and private consultations. Classes range from $235 to $1,020. 13116 Hutchinson Way, Suite 100, Silver Spring, 301-946-8208, .

National League of Junior Cotillions. Classes for high school and junior high students. The next cotillions, which meet once a month, begin in the fall and cost $375 or less for groups. P.O. Box 5412, Arlington, 703-921-0799, .

The Protocol School of Washington. A business etiquette and dining seminar is May 22 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington and costs $695. P.O. Box 6681, McLean. 202-575-5600, .

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