Girls in party dresses and white gloves, and boys in buttoned-up blazers and neckties aren't a common sight around the Eagle Valley, but a nattily dressed junior crowd converged on the Brush Creek Pavilion last Sunday night.
Some of the kids were there on their own volition. Others had been dragged in by parents. But once the evening started, all of them proceeded to show off their best manners for the next 90 minutes. But then again, that's the whole reason why they gathered together in the first place.
For the first time, Jon D. Williams Cotillions is offering its program in the Eagle area and 117 local kids have signed up to learn a bit of etiquette. According to the organization's website, the purpose behind its programs is to help kids develop better social and communication skills that will have an influential and positive impact throughout their lifetimes.
"Having good social skills and being able to properly present one's self is a necessity in today's increasingly competitive society. It empowers individuals to feel comfortable with themselves and others, to communicate more effectively, and to set a leadership example in school, business or in any social situation promoting personal growth, confidence and character," states the company website at www.cotillion.com.
The program made its way to Eagle after local resident Mary Boyd found out about cotillion during a conversation with her god-daughter who lives in Denver and was enrolled in a program. In a time when society as a whole seems so uncivil, Boyd was intrigued by the notion of a class devoted to the subject.
"I think that respect is lacking in society and it is so important," said Boyd. "This is teaching kids such important, lifelong skills."
Boyd contacted the program and talked instructors into offering a two four-week sessions in Eagle - one for fourth- and fifth-graders, and one for middle school kids. Cost is $135 for the four sessions and Boyd has been thrilled with the results. She isn't alone.
"The parents are thrilled and the kids are thrilled, and I have wives who want their husbands to go to this class," said Boyd.
Sunday night, Jeananne Kochevar from Grand Junction dropped off her granddaughter, 11-year-old Avery Weaver, for class and decided to stay and observe.
"It's amazing. They learn how to dance together and how boys are supposed to treat girls and how girls are supposed to treat boys," said Kochevar.
She enjoyed seeing the kids all dressed up for the occasion. "Of course, there are more girls than boys," she laughed.
Dave Prater, the single dad of 11-year-old Rylee, has chaperoned two of the cotillion sessions. His daughter wanted to participate in the program. "Well, she was interested in being here, but none of them quite understood what it meant," he said.
So while Rylee has been learning how to dance a box step and properly introduce herself during a party, Prater said he has been most impressed with the larger issues that cotillion reveals.
"You don't see a lot of these respect skills in adults, and here they are, teaching them to kids," said Prater. "Sometimes you stare when you see a man open a door for a woman. How often do you see things like that any more?"
Sunday night's session was taught by Katherine Mason from Denver. The topic was table manners but the evening began, as all cotillion sessions do, with a formal receiving line. From there, Mason asked the students to practice a box step for a few minutes.
As they took to the floor, Mason's advice began. "Do you know what your partner did last weekend? Do you know if your partner prefers to ski or snowboard? You have a couple of options right now. You can just stare at your partner for the next two minutes or you can find out a few things," she advised.
She stressed the importance of boys learning how to lead on the dance floor. "Gentlemen, tonight you are very fortunate because you are dancing with ladies who know what is going on. However, in real life, your partner will be waiting for you to show her what to do."
After the dancing warm-up, Mason asked for some volunteers to sit at a table set up in the center of the room. Dozens of white-gloved hands shot into the air. The boys all kept their hands at their sides. Mason picked three enthusiastic volunteers and three less-enthused conscripts to sit at the table.
"Gentlemen, it is your job to be helpful," Mason said. With that, she taught the boys how to pull out a chair for their escort and then slide it up to the table. Next up was napkin etiquette.
"Bibs are for babies. Your napkin belongs in your lap," said Mason. She passed on the helpful hint that when faced with a large napkin, it works best to fold it into a triangle because it will more than cover the diner's lap.
"There can be up to 10 pieces of silverware at a single place setting. How will you ever know where to begin?" Mason asked.
The simple rule is to start from the outside and work your way in as the courses progress, Mason said. Then she instructed the students in "possibly the most important thing you will learn tonight" - how to properly grasp a fork or spoon. She advised students to hold a dining utensil like a pencil, with the index finger on top rather than fisting a fork caveman-like style.
The lesson continues with dozens of useful tidbits such as:
• When someone asks you to pass either the salt or the pepper, it is good manners to pass both. "The salt and pepper are like penguins. They are black and white and mate for life," said Mason.
• What happens when a UFO - unidentified food object - lands in your mouth? Whether it is a fish bone or a unsavory food item, Mason said don't spit it back out on the plate or in your napkin. "Use your fork to remove it. However you put it in your mouth is the same way it should come out."
• How does one react when presented with bad manners? "Believe it or not, it is considered bad manners to point out someone else's bad manners," said Mason. Instead, she advised students to concentrate on being good role models.
• When a diner is finished with his or her meal, the silverware should be carefully placed at the center of the plate. "Can't you just tell them you are done?" asked one of the students. That question lead to another lesson regarding how to address servers in a restaurant.
• Good manners are a way to set yourself apart, said Mason. "There is always an opportunity out there to establish yourself as a gentleman or a lady."
Did her words fall on fertile ground? For the most part, the students were enthused and engaged in the lessons. But two participants - Sam Brown and Carter Coleman - reported that all this manners stuff is tougher than it looks.
"Dancing is really, really, really, really, really hard. You don't want the girl to step on your feet. It's happened to me twice," said Brown.
Coleman said he will definitely practice the table manners he learned at home and at restaurants "but definitely not at school."
The cotillion program will conclude Sunday, Dec. 12, with a special family program. Students will invite their parents to a formal dance where all their newfound manners will be on display.