It's just minutes before the Big Moment and low-key hell is breaking loose in the holding room. Debutante coordinators, wielding emergency "crash baskets," are busy dispensing thread, bobby pins, safety pins, hair spray, makeup, mouthwash and other disaster-prevention notions. Debutante No. 20 is inexplicably missing, threatening to ruin the alphabetical introductions. And Tieman "Skipper" Dippel, a banker from Brenham, Tex., is nervous about the curtsy: "My daughter wants to do the Texas dip."

Many a tear has fallen over a wobbly Texas dip, which demands that a deb gracefully throw out her arms, fall into a delicate swoon, touch her head to the hem of her dress, and gracefully stand up. Too many have failed. Not a pretty sight.

It's magic hour at Friday's 50th Anniversary National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball of Washington. Fifty-seven debutantes from all over the country will make their formal introduction to society in front of 1,700 people at the Washington Hilton hotel. It is the father's role to pay the freight for this extravaganza, show up in white tie, walk onstage in front of a white Cinderella coach, and make sure his daughter doesn't fall over doing the requisite curtsy. Screw that up and you're dead meat, daddy-wise.

For one night, each one of these young women is transformed into a fluffy white fantasy: part bride, princess, prom queen and movie star. It is a way for Jamie Sheumaker, 25, and her sister Molly, 21, to feel special and beautiful and adored before they become immersed in the world of bosses, husbands, diapers and ex-husbands. "This is the last time they're mine," says their father, Larry Sheumaker, owner of an industrial-valve distribution company in Knoxville, Tenn. "It's a reflection of the American dream that you can get in here without bloodlines."

Finally, the introductions begin. "Representing Ponte Vedra, Florida, we are proud to introduce Miss Sarah Jane Brutschy . . ." Girl after girl--Daddy at her left side and escort in back--walks onstage, hits the mark, executes the curtsy, descends three blue steps and walks the length of the ballroom, full skirts swaying in the spotlight. There are modest curtsies and elaborate dips, including an impressive duo from the McCall sisters of Houston, who debuted together and therefore double-dipped.

"Representing Pine Mountain, Georgia . . ." "Representing Great Falls, Virginia . . ." Memphis, Longview, Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg, Alexandria--the presentation took an hour, ending with one Marot Roelker Williamson of Potomac, a third-generation deb whose grandmother came out at the first ball in 1950 and whose mother debuted at the 25th. At exactly midnight, all 57 Cinderellas did a Grand Promenade of bows, then waltzed with their beaming fathers and escorts to Cole Porter's "Love for Sale."

The announcer leans into the microphone.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a ball!"

The fairy godmother behind all this is Mary-Stuart Montague Price, a smidgen of a thing known far and wide as "Studie," the blond charmer who founded and chaired this ball for 50 years.

"People ask me, 'Miss Price, what do you do?' I tell them, "I bring attractive people together under the most glamorous circumstances.' "

Price is a sweet mother-hen type, which means that nice, attractive girls can come under her wing and be embraced as debutantes. Queen Elizabeth started this whole business centuries ago when suitable young women were introduced at court to announce their eligibility for a good marriage. The practice was revived with Queen Victoria, and Americans of means enthusiastically took up the custom to marry well and up. One no longer has to be, strictly speaking, from a blue-blooded family to make the grade. Debs come with a variety of pedigrees but the tradition has never lost its appeal, especially in the South.

The beloved "Studie" made her debut in 1940 when, as the 18-year-old daughter of a career naval aviator, she asked for a coming-out ball. Ten years later--after marriage, and jobs in the Pentagon and public relations--she decided Washington needed a formal ball of its own. There were other deb balls, of course, but hers was open to girls (mostly white; the balls tend to remain segregated) without, shall we say, portfolio.

"It's not a hoity-toity experience," says Price. "It's fun."

For the first two decades, the ball was held on Thanksgiving night; in the third decade, girls from other cities came to Washington and the ball pushed ahead one day. There were lean years and boom years, and somehow, Price always managed to find debs--despite the other deb balls, such as the Christmas Ball and Alpha Kappa Alpha Cotillion--and raise money for charity. This year's ball will give $50,000 to Children's National Medical Center.

What started as a small dance has evolved into a week-long whirl of dances, teas, luncheons, receptions, balls and after-parties. Debutante families pay $3,900 for a table of 12 for Friday's white-tie affair; more than half of the debs come from outside Washington and end up spending up to $10,000 for gowns, hotels and other expenses.

The ball attracts the kind of person who is proud to be old-fashioned and traditional. The word "family" is mentioned over and over. "What happens here that really does matter is reminding each one of us the importance of family," says Dippel. "It intensifies relationships that get lost in the modern world."

Studie's family of debs, former debs and escorts returns year after year. The rituals are well known and well loved: The debs wear white gowns, white elbow-length kid gloves, and receive a fan with orchids. Last year's come back and wear black; post-post debs wear red. Except in 1976, the Bicentennial year, when the color scheme was red, white and blue.

As a practical matter, the whole thing is utterly unnecessary. Girls no longer get married at age 18, or require "proper" introductions if they do. But there is something that draws people back: Some call it charming, some like the old-fashioned graciousness, and some just love how it makes them feel.

"I'll tell you what it's not: It's not a great accomplishment to be a debutante," says Chris Kidd, a 46-year-old headhunter from Alexandria. "This is not like graduating from college. It's a fantastic party, but we don't look at it as a great achievement. We try to keep it in the right perspective."

Studie introduced Kidd to his wife shortly after her debutante ball in 1971. They've been back several times, so it's really no surprise that Kidd's oldest child, 17-year-old Carter (a senior at T.C. Williams with a 4.05 grade average), is also a deb this year.

"It's an opportunity to share Carter with a whole lot of people," says Kidd, who clearly adores his daughter. "If you haven't met Carter Kidd, you haven't lived."

For most people, the night before the grand cotillion--Thanksgiving night--may only mean digesting turkey and football. But the debs and their families have attended two breakfasts, a dress rehearsal, three receptions and a dinner. Now it's 10 p.m. and the place to be is the Venetian masked ball hosted by Joe and Janet Cafaro in their fabulous mansion on Chevy Chase Circle, which reminds many of a residence befitting a Venetian doge.

Their daughter, Capri, debuted at this ball seven years ago; 15-year-old Renee is a 1999 debutante, and this party for 400 is in her honor. Even the marble statues are wearing masks, champagne is flowing, and there is dancing after the receiving line.

"When you do things like this, you do it from the heart," says Joe Cafaro, a shopping center developer. "You don't count dollars." If one were to count dollars, this soiree would cost . . . ? "No idea," he says cheerfully.

Money well spent, in this father's eyes: "It's a tradition that deserves to be kept alive," he says. "It is truly a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience."

The Cafaros are rich, no doubt about it. But their two girls are anything but do-nothing rich-girl debs: Capri, 22, has a master's in foreign relations from Georgetown and her own defense contracting company, USAerospace. She debuted in New York, Dallas, Palm Beach, Vienna and here in Washington. Renee, 16 next month, plans to attend Stanford or Yale next fall.

"I really wanted to prove the social stereotype wrong," says Renee Cafaro. "People think debs are superficial models for an antiquated society that doesn't exist anymore. I wanted to show that young women can have respect for tradition, but to change the purpose of it: It's displaying yourself on your own merits."

There is, she admits, an element of showing off involved. Debutantes are not wallflowers. "I don't know if it's chicken or egg: if they're more flamboyant, or if the festivities make them that way."

Well, they're definitely not shy. Brooke Matthews, a 21-year-old from Summit, N.J., came out at New York's International Ball three years ago and decided it would be great to come out here, too.

"I think it's a great opportunity to meet people," says the public relations major at the University of Tennessee. "It's no longer 'Find your husband.' It's definitely networking. I've met several people who've said, 'If you need a job, call me.' "

"You're no longer a failure if you're not engaged in a year," says Covington Smith, a classics major at University of Maryland. Her two older sisters debuted at Washington's smaller and more exclusive Christmas Ball, but she chose this one. "What attracted me was the military aspect. I like the Army boys." The Chevy Chase debutante met her boyfriend, West Point's Andy Riise, at her cousin's Thanksgiving debut last year.

Husband-hunting may not be the primary purpose behind Studie's balls, but she adores what she calls finding her girls their "OAO--one and only." By now, there are too many Studie-inspired marriages to count.

To make every girl feel wanted, Price recruits 200 "escorts" to serve as dance partners. Many are from the military academies. Oliver North, who attended this cotillion as a guest, served as an escort at the 1965 ball, although his three daughters were never debs. ("When they were at the appropriate age to be debs, Daddy was far too notorious," he says.)

This party is crawling with young men in uniform, selected for their manners, morals and height.

Midshipman Matt Ibbetson, a 23-year-old senior at the Naval Academy, came back this year for the second time, spending $200 of his own money for expenses. "I had such an awesome time I had to do it again," he says. "I'm from Kansas. We don't do anything like this. I feel like I'm doing something classy. It's kind of cheesy to some people, but it makes me feel good."

Sarah Hollister Perkins of Danville, Va., met her future husband, Lionel Parker Perkins III, five years ago when he was assigned as her escort at the 1994 ball: The returning deb fell for the guy in the Marine Corps uniform. "It was love at first sight."

The Perkins are sharing a tender moment at the Cafaros' ball when the Kodak moment occurs.

A dashing young man in a mask approaches Gambrill Hollister, a former deb from Atlanta. The mystery man turns out to be her boyfriend from Houston, Marcus Wagner, who has flown up to be with her. Wagner drops to his knees in the middle of the dance floor and proposes marriage. The answer is yes, of course.

"What a perfect place to get engaged," she says breathlessly.

At Friday night's ball, the attention has returned to the 57 debs. They are the thin white line: white gowns, white pearls, white teeth. The dresses are bridal gowns--many very expensive, many by designers such as Vera Wang. (And no, Dad, there is no chance they will re-wear them on their wedding day.) Underneath, they wear fuzzy slippers for comfort's sake; their high heels are stretched out on the counters behind them.

After 90 minutes of shaking hands in the receiving line, just before they are officially presented, there is time for some last-minute curtsy practice. "They put one leg behind and make as deep a curtsy as they can," says Price. "But the Texas curtsy is different: They go all the way down and touch their head to the floor."

In the end, it doesn't really matter, does it? All brides are beautiful, but some are more beautiful than others. All debs are graceful, but some are a wee bit less wobbly than others.

But they can dance. God, can they dance. Dinner is served at 1 a.m., but the dance floor is full from the moment the debs finish their bows until the band is ready to pack up. Moms dance, dads dance, debs dance. They love to dance to every song, but the crowd goes nuts and sings along when band leader Gene Donati breaks into "Dixie."

Deb dad Alden Schiller, of Austin, takes a puff of his cigarette and overlooks the dance floor. "We came two years ago for fun because we like to get dressed up and dance," he says. "That's actually the main reason people come here. It's a delightful anachronism."

But to other parents, this night is a gift to their children.

"I don't care how much it costs--it's worth it," says Michelle Sheumaker.

"I do," interrupts her husband, but she ignores him because--truth is--he doesn't really care. He's proud he can do this for Jamie and Molly.

"I also think it's all about being a girl," says Michelle. "You know how when they're little they want to be Cinderella? This is as close as you can get."

The Cinderellas are still dancing with their princes when the ball ends at 3 a.m. The music stops, the crowd turns to the American flag, and everyone sings the national anthem.

Another perfect night, thanks to Studie. The coach never turns back into a pumpkin, the slipper always fits.

"Studie takes these young women and for a snapshot in their lives, gives them an experience that is only achieved in fantasy," says Chris Kidd. "If the kids don't live their dream and don't believe some of them can be achieved, they stop dreaming."