Yes, Sir … Yes, Ma’am

Dropping in on Junior Cotillion in Fort Myers as it schools youngsters in the social graces

BY May 26, 2015


It’s a still-hot early October Sunday afternoon in downtown Fort Myers. The soap shop, deli and dollar store are preparing to close for the day.

But plenty of cars are parked farther down First Street at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, where a sign on a side door reads, “Closed for private event.” Inside, middle- schoolers dressed for a country-club evening line up in the entry hall and file one by one into the main room to formally greet Junior Cotillion director Laurie Coventry-Payne, then take a seat among rows of folding chairs. Some of their parents are seated in the back.

The boys and girls of Cotillion Season 1 have arrived for their first instructional dance.

“Welcome! I am Miss Laurie,” Payne says into a microphone headset. “And whenever I accept a new class I am totally bowled over, because you people don’t know what you’re in for! Parents, I’m going to transform them right before your eyes!”

To her charges—21 boys and 21 girls—she says, “You did very well. You learned how to introduce yourself. You were supposed to say ‘Hello, Miss Laurie. My name is …’ and then wait for me to extend my hand and then shake it. By the way, if you ever meet the queen, you don’t extend your hand because she will not shake it. Isn’t that interesting?”

Doubtful. It seems these mostly sixth-graders are far too self-conscious to form a thought other than, perhaps, “Hide me.” They’ve just taken the first steps on a three-year Junior Cotillion journey that involves dressing up, dance lessons and polite conversation, how to be a host and a guest—in short, what most of their parents call “the social graces.”

Payne would not be surprised if the boys, especially, had been coerced into khakis, a blazer and a tie on this hot afternoon. She understands there’s a whole lot of cajoling going on, at least during students’ first year.

After that, they come around.

Marshall Greenbaum confirms this about two weeks later at another event, this one for the third-year participants. “The first year my mom said, ‘You should do this.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’” he says. “I didn’t really like it. I didn’t like dancing. Second year, I was used to it, I guess. It started being fun.” Now he’s clearly all in.

Participation in Junior Cotillion is by invitation, perhaps through a friend at school or a mom telling a mom.

The girls are easier to sell on the idea. “I was invited my eighth-grade year,” says North Fort Myers High School student Alexis Smith. “There were girls wearing all these pretty dresses. It was cool. Fancy.”

Ranae Feioch learned about the program from a friend at Canterbury School in Fort Myers. She says she has gained “self-assurance and self-respect. An ability to make sure other people are at ease,” she says.


The Cotillion Way

Seasons run from October through March or April, with some pre-season meetings for parents in September. Graduation for the 2015 third-season students took place at a ball at the Marriott Sanibel Harbor on March 7.

The program stresses parental involvement. Dance chaperones are mostly moms.

“When dads come, they act as security,” says Ediemarie Rattner, whose son Cody was a Season 3 member.

Most of the curriculum is handed down from the National League of Junior Cotillions, an organization in its 25th year with chapters in 30 states.

And it succeeds, say parents such as Alexis Smith’s mother, Lauren Leedy. Alexis’ brother, Cody, was in the program and now is one of a cadre of older student volunteers. They come back for subsequent seasons after they “graduate,” to teach dance steps, fill in as dance partners in case of a student’s absence and no doubt to be role models.

“Cotillion encourages the kids to socialize in a nonthreatening, non-peer-pressure environment. It’s not school, so they don’t have to worry about that,” Leedy says.

Dressing up was never a problem for Leedy’s kids. They do medieval and Civil War re-enacting; they are familiar with themed events and are resourceful about finding the right clothes. But outfitting for Cotillion can get expensive, particularly for the girls. To help with this, Coventry-Payne holds an annual pre-season garment exchange, for selling or swapping dresses, shoes and accessories.

In addition to clothing costs, cotillion membership is $425 per year. Businesses sometimes sign on as sponsors for a child. Among contributors to Cotillion students this year were Capital Roofing & Sheet Metal Inc., David Meardon Photography, Golfstream Shoes, Kaufmann Homes, Knysna Creations, Positively Organized/Roxy Hambleton, McCallion & McCallion Realty, Pinnacle Building Solutions, Stilwell Enterprises and Restaurant Group, and


Miss Laurie

“Miss Laurie, as she is addressed by the children, first started teaching Junior Cotillion in 2004. Since that time, her programs have expanded from an initial enrollment of 90 families to close to 300 per season.    

“Miss Laurie was a professional classical dancer in Europe before returning to the United States and earning her master’s degree in environmental science. She is currently the executive director of a nonprofit foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to use the arts and humanities to build a culture of kindness that extends to the entire community of life.  

“Miss Laurie has been married to her husband, John, for 25 years. She has five grown children, one grandchild and a golden retriever named Cotillion Beauty.”

—From “Information for Parents” on the chapter website 

One mother describes Miss Laurie as “Nutty Professor-ish.”

Graduate assistant Derek Weiss, a senior at North Fort Myers High School,  remarks on her persistence. He knows in particular that his table manners have improved on her watch. “Miss Laurie tends to, like, drill it into you. So you go home and start doing it.”

Third-season student Stephen Bergquist is proving this, says his father, Bill, a chaperone at a late-October party along with his wife, Bonnie. “Stephen has taken some of the etiquette and taught it to his siblings,” Bergquist says.

“The dancing and escorting are good to know anywhere,” says Stephen. He is home-schooled and hasn’t been to a dance outside of Cotillion yet. But when he does, he’ll know what to do, he says.

Graduate assistant Danielle Cambareri says she is more at ease with both peers and adults since completing Cotillion. “One of the things that Miss Laurie teaches us is that we are all beautiful in our own unique way. And there is something about the fact that someone other than your parents told you that you were beautiful that just sticks with you. With this, my confidence level has gone up.”


Let’s Dance

On that hot October afternoon, the girls of Season 1 are called to the middle of the room, now the dance floor, to practice the “grand march.” Hot Hot Hot is playing. Still seated, the boys watch. Some wag their heads to the beat. Two sitting side by side poke each other, snicker and fidget. The boys are nearly all shorter than the girls—most by several inches. By Season 2, the boys have nearly always caught up.

The girls go back to their seats and, at Miss Laurie’s instruction, practice sitting properly. “Stand in front of your chair. Feel the chair on the back of your legs. Sweep your dress under you with your hands. Now sit down and orient your knees to the left. Cross your ankles.”

It’s the boys’ turn. They stand on command, button their jackets and converge on the center of the room to walk in lines. Their song, Macho Man, prompts a few to strut but most to look sheepish. Back at their seats, Miss Laurie reminds them to unbutton their jackets, then sit.

Time to move on to the next social skill. “Gentlemen, you have learned how to walk. And now you are going to learn to walk with a lady on your arm,” Miss Laurie says. The children pair up, practice walking together and turning in a circle with the boy on the outside, so he’s the one who takes more steps.


Dress Code

“All Junior Cotillion sessions are dress-up affairs for which careful grooming is required. Hair should be neatly combed, fingernails clipped and clean, shoes polished and so forth. Dancing requires hard-soled shoes. Shoes for ladies must have a back-strap. No athletic shoes or flip-flops, please. Ladies should wear conservative dresses or skirts, short white gloves and dress shoes for dances. Hemlines may be no shorter than 2 inches above the knee and necklines must be age-appropriate. Gentlemen wear khaki pants, dress shirts, ties, and navy or dark blazers.”

—From the Junior Cotillion Dress Code 

At a Roaring Twenties-themed party for Season 3 members, students are paired randomly and seated at round, white-clothed tables at the art center. According to the evening’s mystery motif, someone has stolen the black cat statue from a nightclub. A cast of suspects, played by graduate volunteers, will be introduced by “an inspecteur from Frahnce,” Miss Laurie explains. Trench-coated Douglas Coventry, Miss Laurie’s adult son, is the French inspector, all “zees” and “zoes” and silly jokes.

Eight or 10 parents clad in ’20s fashion are on-hand to sign students in for the evening, serve “giggle juice” (ginger ale) and supervise. One helps with a minor wardrobe malfunction. Another wordlessly walks to the table where her daughter is sitting and holds her hand out next to her daughter’s face. The young lady spits her chewing gum into her mother’s palm.

Instructional dances are main events of Cotillion. Tonight, students will master the Charleston, the Lindy hop and the turkey trot. They have the box step, waltz, fox trot, shag, swing, cha- cha and other dances already under their belts.

Other Cotillion events include costume balls, holiday parties and dinners for learning social skills such as dining American- as well as Continental-style, and less definable personal assets such as interacting easily with opposite-sex peers and putting other people at ease. “The most interesting person in the room is the one most interested in others,” Miss Laurie tells them.

As the evening winds down, assistant hostess Ediemarie Rattner begins collecting the table decorations—replica old-fashioned cameras and glass bowls holding shells and flameless candles. She gathers up cards explaining the whodunit involving the cat statue and any other forgotten items, such as a tuxedo-fitting voucher, which each of the boys received that evening.

“Just trying to get this cleanup started,” she says. “It’s a school night.” 


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