The teen debutantes drew deep breaths, waiting their turn to dip into well practiced curtsies inside a Brooklyn Park hotel ballroom.
White gloves stretched to their elbows. Pearls looped around their necks. Layers of crinoline rustled as they walked, lending their white gowns the fullness of peonies in bloom.
“Arms out,” a quiet voice reminded. “Chin up. Chest lifted, smiling.”
After 10 months of preparation, 22 young black women were ready for their entree into Twin Cities society, accompanied by fathers in sleek tuxes, mothers in floor-length dresses and teenage escorts in white bow ties. The event marked the revival of black cotillions in the Twin Cities after an eight-year hiatus.
It’s a coming-of-age tradition with deep roots in the South and metropolitan centers across the country, first embraced by black families in the Twin Cities in 1981.
This year’s “debs” want to be doctors and lawyers, psychologists and architects. Many fill their days with honors classes, sports, volunteer work, leadership roles and church. But often, they still feel overlooked in school and invisible or misunderstood in the wider world, they said.
Not on this night.
All evening, hotel guests gawked at the women in ballgowns. Mouths dropped. The word “princesses” sprang to the lips of passing children, who stopped to stare.
“I feel beautiful,” said Amisa Jones, a senior at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul. “Confident.”
Hours before their big February debut, Jones and the other debutantes filtered into a hotel meeting room to get ready.
Makeup artists dabbed lips with color and swiped eyelids with shimmering powder. Garment bags cocooned dresses that cost $200, $500, or more.
Jones held still as her mother, Marissa Jones, studded her updo with pearl pins.
As she joined the other debs for a group photo, she smiled, then shouted: “Black excellence in action!”
At the heart of cotillions is a celebration of African-American culture, say the groups that organize them. Academics agree.
“It’s a time to promote black culture and racial identity and racial pride,” said Jessie Carney Smith, an African-American studies scholar and librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically black university. “These affairs started not long after slavery.”
Following emancipation in the early 1860s, families were looking for ways to exalt accomplishments in the “black community,” she said. Debutante cotillions, rituals for well-heeled families to mark a young lady’s entrance into society, fit the bill.
Leading up to a cotillion, debutantes learn etiquette and manners — and yes, how to curtsy. Over the years, however, many cotillions have evolved to focus on achievement, service, mentoring and professional development.
“It’s so much more than a dance,” said Wenda Moore, a charter member of the Twin Cities chapter of the Links Inc., the group that brought the tradition to the Twin Cities. “They are the future leaders of our community.”
The Links held its first Twin Cities cotillion in 1981, led by women who had once been debutantes in cities like New Orleans and Los Angeles.
For 30 years, the annual program attracted high school seniors bound for elite colleges and braided in career advice and fundraising elements.
“African-American girls don’t get a lot of positive reinforcement or feedback. They’re not told that they’re beautiful,” said retired Hennepin County District Judge Pamela Alexander, who chaired the deb ball in 1988 and 2000. “This gives us an opportunity to showcase them.”
Gradually, a program-high 38 debutantes in 1988 dropped off, prompting the Links to step back from the cotillion in 2011, Alexander said.
Enter Monique Benoit and the local chapter of the African-American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. Benoit had been a debutante in Maryland during high school and suggested that the sorority revive the tradition.
She figured that holding the event every other year and opening it up to sophomores and juniors as well as seniors could help keep the numbers strong.
“I said, ‘I think it will work, and I think we should try it,’ ” said Benoit. “It turned out my hunch was right.”
For this event, the sorority had hoped for 10 to 15 girls. More than 20 signed up. The event sold out.
The inaugural class included those whose mothers and grandmothers were debutantes, as well as some from families that had considered flying them to places like Memphis for a cotillion if no local option emerged.
There were also students unfamiliar with the tradition, or those not entirely sold on it.
“At first, I did not want to do it,” said Jadyn Hayes, a senior at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley. “It all seemed so pretentious and uppity.”
She paused, touching her white gown.
“Now it seems really important to me to wear the dress and gloves,” she said. “I am representing something important — black history.”
The cotillion exacts both time and money, including a $500 participation fee and fundraising through selling event tickets and ads for the souvenir book. The proceeds go to scholarships and community programs.
Since April, the debs have gathered for regular Sunday workshops, including sessions on college readiness, career planning and mental health. Then dance rehearsals began, with fathers and teen escorts joining in.
The cotillion, parents say, pushes back on stereotypes of broken African-American families and absentee fathers.
“They are not the exception. This is the rule,” said Shana Moses, mother of debutante Ayo Olagbaju, a junior at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis. “This promotes a new narrative.”
Teens said it can be tough sorting out their identities surrounded by mostly white peers.
Fewer than 10 students are black out of about 130 in the senior class at the Blake School in Minneapolis, said senior Morgan Phillips. It makes an event like the cotillion feel crucial, she said.
“Being around so many beautiful black women. … ” Phillips said, trailing off. “I love it.”
For cotillions to come
Inside the packed ballroom, after each debutante had taken her stately walk, the teens hit the dance floor in routines that married traditional waltzes and tangos with modern twists.
The crowd whooped with joy when fathers took their places with their daughters as the song “Unforgettable” filled the room. Onlookers snapped photos, hugged one another and wiped tears as young men in dressy tailcoats strutted in for their dance.
The time came to crown the queen, the year’s top fundraiser. Phillips heard her name called. A room packed with family, community leaders and black professionals cheered.
Soon she found herself surrounded by well-wishers with cameras. But just after 10 p.m., a little girl stepped forward, admiring Phillips’ gloves. So the queen slipped them off and tried them on her admirer, a someday debutante, waiting in the wings.