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1. A Love of Ritual
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, a man in tails and a woman in a flapper-style sequined dress arrive with their daughter in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. They are here to celebrate the debutante class of 2003, which came out the night before at the National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball.
For the past several minutes, their little girl, a tiny golden-haired beauty who looks to be about 3 years old, has been acting up. She has refused go to the ball until her mother relinquishes part of her outfita pink feather boa.
“Do you want to come back next year?” the father says.
The child ignores him and keeps reaching for the boa.
“Mom, I’m freezing!” the little girl pleads.
The mother tries to hand her daughter a child-sized fur coat. The girl isn’t interested. The father is at wit’s end. He looks down at his daughter and unleashes the ultimate threat: “You’re not going to be in the class of 2015 if you don’t watch it!”
His words apparently do the trick. Minutes later, the child is in the ballroom.
To read the newspapers, you would think that a girl so young shouldn’t necessarily expect to attend a debutante ball when she turns 18. Every few years or so, the same story appears, announcing the near-extinction and uncertain resurrection of the deb. In 1979, the Chicago Sun-Times asked: “The Return of the Deb: Is Coming Out Coming Back?” In 1984, the New York Times Magazine did it again: “Reviving the Rituals of the Debutante.”
Society sheets take the air out of such trend pieces. If you look at party photo books such as Washington Life and the Georgetowner, you note that debutantes don’t come and go; they just keep coming. Each year, when these publications print the social calendar, at least one debutante ball is always on the list.
That’s not to say times haven’t changed. Even at such tony private academies as the Madeira School and the Holton-Arms School, aspiring debs are taunted as “elitist” and “rich” by their elite and rich classmates.
But such barbs aren’t enough to stop a girl from donning kid gloves, taking her father’s hand, and wading around in a sea of tulle. Today’s debutantes are made of tougher stuff than that. To be a deb these days, you have to have the strength of Samson, the grace of Balanchine, and the wallet of Trump. You have to know that Society doesn’t mean everybodyjust everybody who knows the fox trot and can afford a $150 seat at dinner. That the people who call you an anachronism would come out too if they were ever invited. And that fainting in the receiving line in front of hundreds of people isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you, as long as you get back up.
On a Sunday evening in November, a 6th-grader named Dean, dressed in his best church duds, escorts a young lady named Caroline into the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington. The pint-sized couple stops in front of their hostess, Beth Kelly, not really sure what to do.
“Would you like to introduce the lady?” asks Kelly.
Dean’s eyes widen with terror.
“First you say, ‘Mrs. Kelly. I’d like you to meet Caroline,’” says Kelly.
Dean has no idea what Kelly is talking about. Then he bends over and reads Caroline’s name tag, and, realizing his faux pas, hits himself in the forehead.
The first cotillion is always the hardest. Good thing this one is just practice.
Kelly and a partner run the Arlington chapter of the National League of Junior Cotillions, which teaches etiquette and ballroom-dance. Kelly just wants her students to be able to survive bat mitzvahs and wedding receptions.
For debutantes, though, such training is almost a prerequisite. Parents pay a couple of hundred dollars a year for years of such classes, which usually begin in grade school.
Etiquette curricula vary, but the pedagogy has the feel of being nagged by your nana. Partying, after all, is not about having fun. It’s a serious matter. At least for future debs and escorts.
The handbook of the National League of Junior Cotillions, for instance, advises students never to wear their feelings on their silk wraps: “Enter in the spirit of the party. All things do not appeal equally to all people. What is fun for me may seem ‘corny’ to another, but only an ill-mannered person would put a damper on other people’s spirits at a party by making derogatory remarks about the activities, refreshments, or the other guests. The perfect guest appears to be enjoying himself whether he is or not!”
Barbara Hinkel, who attended a prestigious girls’ boarding school in England and teaches etiquette and ballroom-dance classes in Oakton, Va., says the key to good manners is always “being in control.” To make sure that her students maintain a confident façade, she drills them with declarations such as:
“If you sit with legs crossed, arms folded, it’s the body language of ‘I’m cold, I’m narrow-minded, and I don’t want to get to know you.’”
“There are obviously no-touch zones. Most of the body is no-touch.”
“Keep control of the situation. As you’re eating the muffin and it starts to crumble, stop eating it.”
3. Good Flow
Even as she maintains her composure at all times, a debutante must also be able to let loose. Working knowledge of the waltz, fox trot, cha-cha, and tango is mandatory. And a deb should be able to bust her old-school moves to just about anything, including Top 40 tunes.
No parental controls are necessary. In its classes, the National League of Junior Cotillions regulates the kind of music that its instructors can use to ensure that no one plays anything vulgar or offensive. Under Junior League standards, “Magic Stick,” for instance, is out. But “Who Let the Dogs Out?” is in.
4. Snob Appeal
You have to be invited to be a debutante. And a few years back, Hinkel discovered that you can have all the social graces in the world, but without connections, you won’t have anywhere to show them off.
Hinkel’s daughter absorbed all of her mother’s gold-standard etiquette training, as well as her deft moves on the dance floor. But when the girl approached deb age17 to 21 years oldHinkel had a hard time getting information on how her daughter might make her debut. “You had to know the right people,” Hinkel says.
The “right people”the ones who decide who gets to be a debutantearen’t listed in the Yellow Pages. And they don’t have a Web site. They get word-of-mouth recommendations from people they already know. The closed-circuit recruitment strategy can be a recipe for extinction; once their daughters are no longer of deb age, deb recruiters have trouble finding interested girls among their own circle of friends. So ball organizers must walk a fine line between maintaining cachet and staying viable.
One of the most successful debutante balls in the country is the National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball, which takes place each November at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The ball has survived several changes in venue, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and periodic ebbs in interest. Part of the secret of the Thanksgiving Ball’s success is that, relatively speaking, it’s inclusive.
Debs at the Thanksgiving Ball need not be of impeccable “cave-dweller” lineagea term of art for being of old-stock extraction, such as Mayflower Society members. Debs don’t have to be particularly wealthy, either, says founder Mary-Stuart Montague Price. What matters is who recommends them.
The organizers receive about 150 recommendations a year through a network that consists of Price’s friends and former and current debs. About 35 debs come out each year.
Price, whose father was in the military, also assembles a large contingent of escorts from military schools, which have diverse student bodies. “You get a little bit of everything here,” says Victor Crawford, the Floor Committee chair for the ball.
Of course, not everyone ascribes to the meritocratic approach. For the more parochial types who prefer to keep their social circle firmly rooted in the “Green Book”Washington’s social registerthere is the Washington Christmas Ball at the Mayflower Hotel. About 10 young ladies from the Washington area come out there each year. The Christmas Ball debs are all students in Mrs. Simpson’s Classes, an etiquette and ballroom-dance program in Chevy Chase, Md.
The class is invitation-only, as well. Class proprietress Virginia Simpson and a secret committee of parents choose students from among third-graders at private elementary schools such as the National Cathedral School, the Beauvoir School, the Potomac School, and the Norwood School.
Even among these elite pools, not everyone gets invited. Richard Lehfeldt, a power-company executive who now lives in Florida, recalls that he and his wife were baffled when 10 years ago, their daughter, then a third-grader at Potomac, was the only child in her class who didn’t receive an invitation to join Simpson’s class.
“We asked around and we figured out the dirty little secret,” says Lehfeldt, who believes that his daughter was not invited because she is Jewish. Lehfeldt criticized Simpson’s admission practices in a 1993 Washington Post article, which cited several cases where Jewish and nonwhite children were the only ones in their classes not invited. “My assumption was that people didn’t know and once they knew, they would retreat,” says Lehfeldt. “But what we found out was that they did know and did not want to retreat.”
Simpson denies discriminating against anyone. (She declined to comment to the Washington City Paper.) Over the years, the mystery of the Simpson class cut led to the establishment of alternative, more egalitarian etiquette and ballroom-dance training programs that operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“I can’t stand that attitude that you’re better than everyone else,” says one Washington blue-blood, who sent her son elsewhere. “The ones who…go like that elitist stuff. I just don’t. Their children will not do well in life with an attitude.”
Presenting your daughter to society is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to flash some serious cash. Tastefully, of course.
For starters, your daughter will need a sleeveless white ball gown. These can be hard to find. A wedding dress is a natural substitute. They cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Also mandatory are white gloves that cover the elbow. A new pair of handmade kid gloves costs about $250. Then there’s the basic fee for participating in the ball, about $3,900. That includes 12 seats. Extra seats cost $150 each. All proceeds go to Children’s Hospital.
You’re not ready to check out yet. That $10,000 wedding gown will work only for a few hours of a deb’s career. Those debuting at the Thanksgiving Ball are also invited to several parties and lunches during the week. That means your daughter will need several more evening gowns (at least $300 a pop), a couple of suits (another $300 a pop), not to mention shoes (think $100 a pair), jewelry, evening bags, and a few trips to the beauty salon, including one just for the formal photographs that will appear in the ball program. You and your spouse will likely have to get decked out a few times, as well. Altogether, you can add about another $5,000.
Only a few more items left to throw on your tab. If you’re coming from out of town, you’ll have to cover the cost of airplane tickets and hotel rooms, of course. Even if you live here, your daughter will want a suite for herself and her friends (around $300 a night). If you like, you can also kick in several thousand dollars to sponsor one of the week’s parties.
The total price tag for your daughter’s debut can easily hit 20 grand. And she can always do it again next year, if not in D.C., then in New York.
6. A Knack for Spin
Modern debs, especially those who live outside the Southeast, must contend with all manner of skeptics and naysayers. Modern women, after all, have higher ambitions than to marry well. Just not debutantes.
As a practical matter, though, a deb can hardly afford to expound on the importance of maintaining class privilegeit’s likely to put people off. And setting jaws agape goes against everything she learns in etiquette class. A better strategy is to put the best face on an otherwise elitist and superficial practice by making one or more of the following excuses:
“I’m only coming out because my mother did.”
Here, the debutante comes off as a dutiful child who respects family traditions. Being a debutante suddenly seems no different from having a bat mitzvah or decorating the Christmas tree. The deb distances herself a little from the customs of her class, allowing her to save face with her cultural-elitist friends and still put on a puffy white dress.
“Deb balls are just so much fun!”
This excuse is one of the most effective. By describing her debut as one big party, the debutante obscures the larger social purpose that the coming-out serves. She also casts her critics as killjoys, immediately silencing them. After all, no one wants to be a party pooper.
“Being a deb is a good networking opportunity.”
It’s easy to see why this one’s got legs. The Washington Post even bolstered its cred a few years ago with the tagline: “Think of It as Networking in a Ball Gown.”
The language puts a modern gloss on a Gilded Age practice, a semantic sleight of hand that lends the debutante ball a utilitarian guise. And it downplays all the bowing and scraping while justifying the exorbitant expense as an opportunity cost.
You can tell a real deb not by her soft hands or the quality of her pearls, but by the calluses on her feet. The debs who come out at the Thanksgiving Ball in particular have a whirlwind of social engagements that keep them in formal attire for much of the week. By the night of the ball, some complain they can’t feel their toes.
Here’s a glimpse of their social calendar that week:
Saturday: A party at a penthouse in Rockville.
Sunday: A party at home in Alexandria.
Monday: A reception at a house in McLean.
Tuesday: A tea dance at the Fort McNair Officers’ Club.
Wednesday: A party for the parents at a house in McLean. A dinner and reception at the Rayburn House Office Building.
Thanksgiving Day: A father’s breakfast. A deb and mother’s breakfast. A rehearsal. Three parties at the Hilton: the Carolina Caucus, the Texas Roundup, and the Ohio Bash.
Friday: A mother-daughter lunch at the Washington Club. A reception at the Uzbekistan Embassy. The debutante ball, followed by an after party in the hotel.
Saturday: Another tea dance at the Hilton. The Roaring Twenties Ball at the Mayflower Hotel. A disco-themed after party back at the Hilton.
Sunday: Brunch at the Washington Club.
“By the end of the week, some girls can barely hold their heads up,” says one former deb named Christine. “It’s not pretty. Ever see that Saturday Night Live routine, ‘Drunk Girl’? It’s kind of like that.”
At the Thanksgiving Ball alone, the debutantes have more than 1,000 guests to greet. The young ladies can’t betray a hint of discomfort, even as they contend with all manner of knuckle-crushers, limp wrists, and sweaty palms. Then there’s always the guy who reeks of gin and insists on getting a little too close.
At times, standing in the receiving line can feel like running a marathon without moving. Ball volunteers even keep the debs hydrated with frequent cups of water.
Despite the organizers’ best efforts, however, there are still casualties. At this year’s ball, a Texas deb named Lauren starts to sway in the receiving line, as a camera crew from A&E is filming. She is saved from the complete embarrassment of toppling over by two debs who catch her before she hits the floor.
Lauren still isn’t feeling well a half-hour later as she sits in a hallway behind the ballroom with the other debs waiting to be presented. “Do we have time to pee?” she asks a deb coordinator. As soon as Lauren gets the OK, she bolts down the hall, with her father, clutching her white lace fan, fast on her heels.
Five minutes pass. Then 10. No sign of Lauren. The presentation of the debs begins. The chairs along the wall begin to empty as the debs leave to make their entrance. When the debs in line behind Lauren begin to queue for the stage, a deb coordinator heads to the bathroom to investigate.
A couple of minutes later, the door at the end of the hallway swings open and Lauren marches in at full stride, arms pumping, father and escort in hot pursuit.
Lauren says later that once in the bathroom, she fainted again. “I was lying on the floor…but I pulled myself together,” she says. “I wasn’t going to let anything ruin my day.”
8. A Sense of
Among the most ancient elements of coming out is the curtsy. During the 17th century, when young women from country estates were first presented at court, they bowed before Queen Elizabeth I. In Victorian England, debutantes had to not only bow, but back out without getting tangled in their 10-foot trains. Once presented at court, a young lady could begin attending court functions. On the other side of the Atlantic, upper-class Americans eager to model themselves after European aristocracy copied the whole ritual, curtsy and all, despite the absence of royalty.
There are different varieties of curtsies. At the Christmas Ball, the only requirement is that a deb curtsy to the assembled crowd as low as possible while holding her father’s hand. At the Thanksgiving Ball, a deb dips down until one knee nearly touches the floor.
Texas debs have the toughest assignment of all: the Texas dip, a yogalike maneuver in which the deb lets go of her father’s hand, spreads her arms out, eagle-style, goes down on one knee, and lowers her head so that her forehead touches her skirt. In a final flourish, the deb then turns her cheek as if placing it on a pillow.
At the Thanksgiving Ball, a former debutante watches the curtsies from the back of the ballroom. When a debutante completes her bow and nails her dismount without wobbling, the former deb claps and murmurs, “Oh, that was beautiful!” or “Great deb!”
Walking on stage next is a pair of sisters. “A double Texas,” the former deb coos.
“Oooh, airplane arms,” she says, as the sisters begin their descent. When the Texas debs pull out early, the former deb grimaces.
Farah Tayfour, 19, a deb from Washington, D.C., sits slumped in a chair behind the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, waiting to make her debut. For the past few minutes, her dress, a simple strapless number, has been inching toward the ground. Farah can’t take it anymore and gets up. “I’m having trouble with this dress,” she grumbles, tugging the bodice up with both hands.
The deb sitting to the right of Farah turns to her escort and says, “What I really want is a drink.”
The rest of the ladies in white aren’t as punchy. Instead, they bear the expressions of people waiting to jump out of an airplane. Some have developed nervous tics. One deb compulsively pats her hair. Another practices curtsying with her father, while another girl keeps fiddling with the buttons on her gloves.
Farah scans the hall for movement toward the stage. Seeing none, she sits back in her seat and sighs.
“Oy,” she says.
Coming out is all about anticipation. A deb is supposed to feel as if she is on the cusp of something great. But coming out has its moments of drudgery, too. If it didn’t, no one would have to spend years learning to keep her composure.
Farah, for instance, has other things she could be doing. She’s an international-relations major at American University. She’s not sure what she wants to do later. Maybe run a business. She got a job selling clothes at Benetton once, but the man who hired her was fired before she could even start working. She ended up being the manager of her boyfriend’s club. She discovered she had a knack for handling payroll, hiring, and firing. She also learned that “people have brains, but they don’t always use them.”
When it’s finally Farah’s turn to be presented, she and her godfather, Emilio Sacerdoti, walk on stage, stopping in front of a sparkling white carriage and two bubbling fountains. As the announcer bellows her name, she curtsies and flashes a practiced smile.
For the rest of the evening, Farah dances with an assortment of eligible men. The whole point of a deb ball, after all, remains to introduce young ladies such as Farah to eligible young men of her class. Price is fond of saying, “We have a very attractive stag line, and no young lady is stuck with a partner she doesn’t want. It makes it very glamorous for the girls.”
But the 4-to-1 ratio of men to women also means that debs like Farah must endure yet another hardship: lame come-ons.
During the ball, one such clumsy suitor saunters over to Farah’s table.
“Farah, I haven’t hung out with you since Tuesday,” he says.
Farah indulges him in conversation for a minute. After her gentleman caller leaves, she wrinkles her nose as if he had cooties and says, “I think he likes me.”
10. A Solid Liver
A debutante ball may be a civilized setting in which to introduce a young lady to potential mates, but ball organizers have no illusions about how modern men and women seal the deal. That’s where the after party comes in.
At the Thanksgiving Ball after party, beer is served past 4 a.m., long after closing time for most D.C. bars. The debutantes and their escorts are carded at the door, and the 21-and-up guests get bracelets. By the end of the night, the tables are covered in empty Coors Light cans.
Booze is one of the reasons the party after the Thanksgiving Ball is known for being on “a little wild,” even by New York standards, according to one veteran ballgoer. Debs in New York are too cool to party in the hotel. They depart for their own night on the town.
Price decided years ago that a hotel after party was safer than letting her young charges loose in the city. “I can’t have my young people going to Georgetown or Old Town [Alexandria] for after parties,” she says.
The only parties after the Christmas Ball are the ones the debs and their friends manage to throw in their hotel rooms or in their parents’ minivans. The debs who come out with Simpson are usually still in high school. And according to a few of the attendees, Simpson cracks down on alcohol in the rooms. So any hooch must be enjoyed on the sly.
11. Strong Hands
When the formalities of the deb ball have wrapped up, it’s only a matter of time before many of the participants will be grabbing one another’s asses.
The ball does little to satisfy a deb’s sex drive, what with all those layers of tulle separating her from her dance partner. All that goes out the window at the after party, where everyone cans the Arthur Murray dance steps for a little bump ‘n’ grind.
The after-party DJ eschews jazz standards for a nonsensical mix of Naughty by Nature, John Cougar Mellencamp, and the Cure. Many of the debs trade in their gowns for camisoles and low riders. And the stags swap their uniforms and tails for Hawaiian shirts, seashell necklaces, and Mardi Gras beads.
Even without formal training, some of society’s newest additions appear as well-versed in the subtle varieties of rump shaking as the waltz. There are two basic stances, crotch-to-crotch or crotch-to-assunless there’s a three-way going on. Then it’s some combination of the two.
Once a dancer has that down, the next step is ass cupping, a skill that demands a solid grip and a total lack of inhibition.
Most guests at the after party are content to repeat the basics. But a few of the evening’s revelers are more advanced. Several couples, for instance, demonstrate the cup ‘n’ straddle, where the young man grabs his partner’s behind while the young lady rides his leg.
One acrobatic pair shows off a bump ‘n’ lift, where the young man, in mid-grind, hoists his squealing partner into the air for as long as possible while still humping her.
Perhaps recalling all that unwarranted fuss over the tango, the after party’s chaperones don’t seem the least bit put off by the dirty dancing.
“We’re not here to stop everything,” says Army Capt. Jim Geishaker, a vice chair of the Floor Committee. He says if he sees something particularly outrageous, he’ll tap the wrongdoers on the shoulder and ask them to stop.
The laissez-faire baby-sitting policy has its fans. David, a first-year West Pointer from Vienna, Va., says he prefers the keg-party antics of the after party to the stuffiness of the ball. “I hate debutantes,” he confesses. He doesn’t have time to finish his thought, though, as two girls proceed to drag him on to the dance floor and make a manwich of him.
The hormone-fueled free-for-all, however, has a way of making others, especially the more reserved or socially awkward, yearn for the propriety of the ball. Watching the humping throng, one benched Naval Academy cadet grumbles: “People are less polite now.”
12. Mastery of the Quick Change
The night after the Thanksgiving Ball, Farah is one of the hosts of the final party of the weekend, the flapper-themed white-tie affair at the Mayflower. This ball is more intimate than the main event. The receiving line is not as long. There is no presentation, and the debs don’t have to wear white.
Farah’s boyfriend, Saad, 30, a local club owner, didn’t feel like coming tonight. So her military escort, Matthew, fetches her drinks, holds her purse, and offers her his arm at every turn. She indulges him for most of the party. But as soon as the ball ends, she heads up the street to Ben N Mo, Saad’s club, with a black motorcycle-style jacket slung over her golden satin and chiffon gown. When Matthew offers her his arm outside, she turns it down. “Everybody knows me there,” she explains. “They’re going to say, ‘Who was that man hanging on you?’ I don’t need that shit.”
Farah knows that once the party is over, a deb needs to move on. She can’t take time to glory in her new status. It’s not that Farah dislikes exclusivity. It’s that she has other exclusive enclaves to conquer. Like the kind that come with a velvet rope and a bouncer.
Before she returns to the Hilton for the after party, Farah tries to retrieve a friend from the club next door, MCCXXIII, where she was a regular over the summer.
Farah is already inside the velvet rope when a bouncer stops her. “Where’s your ID?” he demands. “It’s in my car,” she protests. She implores him to call the manager, but the bouncer merely closes the rope on her. A few feet away, another MCCXXIII regular pleads with a bouncer to let a friend in for free. “She flew in from São Paulo this morning,” the woman cries. “She’s only here for one night!”
After letting Farah freeze for 20 minutes, the bouncer answers her prayers and lets her in. Farah finds her pal in the VIP section, then declares him too drunk to take with her, and proceeds to the hotel in a taxi.
Later, back at the Hilton, Saad and Farah take a peek at the after party. One look at the crowd singing along to “Dancing Queen,” though, is enough to make them retreat to one of their favorite late-night eateries in Georgetown.
On the way to the falafel joint, Saad and Farah reflect on the meaning of coming out.
“It’s a way to meet people,” says Farah. “Like joining a club.”
“It’s so they know your name, that you’re available [to marry],” says Saad.
“I don’t think it’s about marriage,” says Farah. “It’s about saying you’re from a good family, that’s all. I wouldn’t marry any of those guys.”
13. A High Threshold for Pain
Six a.m. Friday, Nov. 28. The Washington Hilton Hotel. The Thanksgiving Ball ended three hours ago. The after party is winding down. Drunken partygoers begin filing upstairs to their rooms. In an elevator, one tipsy college coed plops in a chair in the corner.
“I’m a princess. Pretty princess. Pretty princess. Julie!”
Her highness gets up to grab her friend’s arm when she slams her head into the brass railing that runs along the back of the elevator car.
The young woman falls back in the chair. The car is silent for a second as she rubs her head. Then she opens her mouth and emits a snort of laughter. And everyone in the elevator laughs with her. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Christopher Bruns.