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Joel Patrick has all the trappings of adolescence: the awkward, fidgety stance, the lanky limbs and the class clown antics. But he also knows how to turn on the charm.'
"If I go to a party or something, I know how to be polite," he said, dressed in perfectly ironed slacks and a button-down shirt.'
The 11-year-old opens doors for "ladies," pulls out their chairs at the dinner table, and even lets them cut in front of him in buffet lines. Not to mention that he can dance a mean cha-cha, without stepping on his partner's toes.'
Joel is one of about 40 pre-teens and teens learning the finer points of etiquette in monthly Cotillion classes. '
The classes have been offered on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton since September, through the Bluffton-Hilton Head Chapter of the Charlotte-based National League of Junior Cotillions.'
The courses haven't been available in this area for several years, according to Jennifer Denney, director of the local chapter. She said she brought the classes back because she didn't want to let the time-honored tradition of Cotillion -- or proper manners -- die.'
"I was in Cotillion as a child, and I had so much fun doing it," said Denney, who grew up in Bowling Green, Ky., and now sells real estate in Bluffton.'
"It teaches all of the old etiquette that's been lost," she added, dressed in a meticulously matched pink outfit as she lugged a giant silver punch bowl into the Country Club of Hilton Head before class.'
In Cotillion class, young people learn traditional etiquette, such as filling out dance cards, setting a formal table, sitting properly and answering a phone politely, plus partner dances like the waltz, the foxtrot and the cha-cha.'
While those skills might seem antiquated, Denney said they're anything but irrelevant in today's society. Knowing how to behave in social situations can build confidence and even affect future careers, she said.'
"Old-fashioned etiquette skills will make you a stand-out person in the world," Denney said, as a group of girls trickled into the country club, dressed in skirts and tights, their hushed giggles echoing through the rooms. "Etiquette is coming back into vogue."'
Denney said proper manners are being taught all over the country, with about 200 Junior Cotillion chapters in more than 25 states. She said most of those chapters are in Southern states, where learning to be a lady or a gentleman is ingrained in the culture.'
According to Lynn Mathis, a spokeswoman for the National League of Junior Cotillions, the Cotillion tradition has its roots in the 18th century formal dances of Europe. Those dances evolved into courses that not only taught fancy footwork, but also instructed young people on the social graces of the day, Mathis said.'
She said Cotillion classes came to the United States after the Revolutionary War, and the courses reached their peak of popularity in the 1950s. That popularity subsided by the 1960s, Mathis said, but now the tradition is experiencing a resurgence in this country.'
"Times have changed," she said. "But good manners are always in style."'
Still, Denney's courses aren't all about tradition. Instead of classical music, students waltz to contemporary tunes by artists like Green Day, Maroon 5 and Gorillaz -- all approved by the National League of Junior Cotillions.'
"I try to keep it laid-back," Denney said.'
Student Paul Mazzoli, 13, said today's Cotillion isn't as austere as people might think.'
"A lot of people give it a bad name," he said as he adjusted his suit jacket. '
"People think you're a prep if you take etiquette class. But that's not it at all. It's fun."'
However, some traditional rules still apply, Denney said. Girls and boys are required to dress in "conservative Sunday" clothing and dress shoes, and girls wear white gloves. '
And not just anyone can join. Denney said participants are invited to sign up. She said she invites children based on recommendations from a parent advisory board.'
"It's an honor to be invited into Cotillion," Denney said, adding that each child pays a $250 enrollment fee annually. "It's a different feel when you get an engraved invitation in the mail."'
Vicki Head, the mother of student Whitney, 12, said she accepted the invitation because her family travels a lot, and she wanted Whitney to feel confident in all situations.'
"It's nice to come into a setting and know she is going to know exactly what to do without being intimidated," Head said.'
But Joel said he has his own reasons for joining Cotillion. Even though he's only 11, he said he's already planning a career as an actor -- a profession in which knowing all the right manners is important.'
"I wouldn't want people to think I was a slob actor," he said.