May I Have This Dance?

Junior Assembly Cotillion celebrates 70 years.

Miss Cleiland Donnan and one of her cotillion students in 1958.

Photo by Chuck Durfor

Though today’s teens and tweens communicate with each other mostly through tweets and texts, older generations can rest assured that face-to-face manners still matter.

Social graces—and the confidence that comes with them—are instilled in hundreds of Richmond-area 6th through 9th graders each weekend during the season of the Junior Assembly Cotillion, the oldest organization of its kind in the state, where children gather to learn dancing, etiquette and more. The cotillion will wrap its 70th season this year, culminating in the annual Cupid’s Ball Feb. 8.

Over the years, this storied organization has been through five successive woman-owned and operated chapters. It also tends to run in the family: Current cotillion owners and sisters Elizabeth Williams and Katherine Byer took over the business from their mother, Susan Norton, and her colleague, Jackie Davidson, in 2013. When Norton and Davidson took over in 1984, they bought the business from Cleiland Donnan, who ran the chapter known informally as “Miss Donnan’s Cotillion” for 28 years beginning in 1956. And Donnan took over from her mother, Edloe Donnan.

It’s important to note that “traditional” doesn’t necessarily mean boring or stuffy. Of course, from the outset, children are taught the importance of eye contact, firm handshakes and formal introductions, and older children are taught how to properly initiate a date.

Young gentlemen are encouraged to use a “mighty right arm” to escort young ladies on and off the dance floor where they learn dances like the waltz, the jitterbug and the merengue. But today, standard blue blazers and girls’ white gloves are often accented by whimsically printed bowties and bright dresses, and the playlist is filled with pop music.

You’ll also find Junior Assembly Cotillion on all the hot social media platforms like Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. And grade-specific “manners cards” are given to participants when they register, detailing current, relevant tips like cell phone and texting etiquette, gratuity guidelines and the importance of practicing respect and kindness. “We take traditions and make them current,” says Williams.

More than anything, though, cotillion is a place to have fun, says Norton. “Even Miss Donnan was a strong believer that this was not just a business.” Manners and fun need not be mutually exclusive.

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