Community Voices

Black in Time: The tradition of cotillion and beautillion balls continues

2015 Z-Ball debutantes and sponsors pictured from left to right are : Lourvenante Tyson, scholarship committee chairperson; $5,000 Scholarship Award recipient Zeta Debutante Brittany Moesha Cooper; President Cora I. Coleman Portee; and Johnnie Mae Kerr, treasurer.
2015 Z-Ball debutantes and sponsors pictured from left to right are : Lourvenante Tyson, scholarship committee chairperson; $5,000 Scholarship Award recipient Zeta Debutante Brittany Moesha Cooper; President Cora I. Coleman Portee; and Johnnie Mae Kerr, treasurer. Photo courtesy, Mark Hill

Weeks in advance excitement and preparation occupied the minds of the young women and young men waiting to be presented to society.

Finally the evenings arrived. On Saturday, April 11, the Beta Tau Zeta Chapter, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority President Cora Coleman Portee and chapter members presented four Zeta debutantes at the Z-Ball. It was held at the InterContinental Hotel in Doral. According to Portee, “ We presented the Debutantes to society under the lights of elegance and the approval of their family and friends.”

After each girl was introduced, she curtsied to her parents or guardian and waited for the music to begin the cotillion. Graduating high school seniors danced in long white bouffant gowns, long white gloves, pearls, and coiffured hair. Light on their feet, they moved gracefully. When the music ended they walked off the dance floor with their escorts.

Two weeks later on April 25th, at the Egelloc Civic and Social Club, Inc. president Mary Ann Thomas, event chairman Nadine Baxter-Atkins, officers and members presented 18 young men as Men of Tomorrow (MOT). The event was held at Parrot Jungle.

“Since its inception in 1970, the Men of Tomorrow program refines the development of our young men who have the potential of becoming outstanding members of our society. For them the presentation is called a beautillion,” Thomas said.

Well groomed and handsomely attired in ivory tuxedoes with matching vests and ties, crisp white shirts, gold cuff links and spit- shined shoes, the 11th graders stepped forward as their names were called. Each danced with his mother or guardian and then his invited guest. The group’s drill and dance routines were choreographed by longtime music director Dr. Richard Strachan and his son Richard.

The cotillion is a formal social dance that began in the early 18th century Europe by French royalty. Later it became popular in England among families of nobility and white families in the United States of great wealth, especially in the South. In the early 20th century, some affluent black families adapted the tradition.

At the dance girls were introduced to society, primarily the family’s social and business network. The goal was to prepare the girls to find husbands. During a training period they practiced good behavior, learned dining etiquette, basic dance steps, and how to dress. The training, dance, and presentation transformed the girls into debutantes.

By the 1940s national black fraternities, sororities, civic and social organizations formed the black social structure in our communities. Through local chapters the cotillion gained popularity, included girls from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, and featured self-confidence and leadership skills.

Miami’s first black debutantes were presented to society in the early 1950s in Colored Town/Overtown during the era of segregation. Sponsored by The Miami Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the event was held at the lavishly decorated Mary Elizabeth Hotel’s ballroom on Northwest Second Avenue and Seventh Street. Located one block southwest of the historic Lyric Theater, the hotel was owned and operated by Dr. William and Mrs. Bernice Sawyer. A black medical doctor, Sawyer was one of Overtown’s most prominent businessmen.

Times have changed. In the 21st century Overtown is no longer the epicenter of black business and culture and the black cotillion is more inclusive. In his book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, Lawrence Otis Graham discusses the tradition of debutante cotillions. In The New Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times, authors Karen Grigsby Bates and Karen E. Hudson feature manners for the growing black middle class and the millennium generation.

Some time ago several groups began the beautillion, a program for the social development of boys in transition from one stage of life to another. The Egelloc Club’s Men Of Tomorrow program now incorporates elements of the beautillion. Conducted through workshops, the seven-month MOT program exposes participants to the rewards of civic involvement, benevolent activities, etiquette and appropriate dress. They compete in four competitions: Essay, Black History Expo, Business Ingenuity and Talent.

Parents are encouraged to participate in activities leading to the presentations. Sonya Gardner, a former MOT mother, is a member of both Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and the Egelloc Club. She knows firsthand the dedication of volunteer members who reinforce home training and help nurture youth into womanhood and manhood.

Raising money for scholarships is an important part of the programs. Funds are generated through tickets, ad sales and donations. The Z-Ball scholarships are awarded to deserving high school seniors planning to pursue a college education. Selection is made from members of the sorority’s Archonette youth group. The girls benefit from exposure to social graces, culture and assistance with completing scholarship applications. The Egelloc Club annually awards the Christina M. Eve Scholarship in memory of a founding club member.

I remember when Mrs. Eve became Miami-Dade County’s first black administrator in an all-white school. Decades earlier as a sixth grader I attended Miami’s first Debutante Cotillion as guest of my teacher, Delta Agenoria S. Paschal. Years later in 1960, during my senior high school year, Zeta Eugenia Thomas sponsored me and my mother, Zeta Dorothy McKellar, who crowned me Miss Cinderella. That same year my godmother, Delta Dorothy Graham, sponsored me as one of the Delta Debs. The pioneer women led by example. For more than 50 years, they helped thousands of us become productive citizens who give back to generations that follow.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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