Students learn dance, leadership skills and etiquette at the Junior League of the Palm Beaches’ Cotillion Academy, which finishes its 62nd season with an April 7 ball. Harper Mull pairs here with Benjamin Bagocius. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Junior League’s Cotillion Academy adapts traditional etiquette to modern life
By Jodi MacNeal
Engage in conversation with Harper Mull, and it’s easy to imagine her being perfectly comfortable in a Fortune 500 job interview. Or at an elegant dinner. Or on the Senate floor. Harper Mull is 9 years old.
The Delray Beach fourth-grader’s poise, polish and presence seem to come from her natural intelligence and personality, refined over the course of two seasons as a student in the Junior League of the Palm Beaches’ Cotillion Academy.
This modern version of the 62-year-old tradition isn’t designed to be snobby or old-fashioned. It’s meant to teach children how to conduct themselves with grace, no matter the situation, and to convey skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives. This year’s Cotillion Academy has brought together 23 students, ages 8 to 13, for monthly instruction in etiquette, leadership and social dancing. The young gentlemen wear jackets and ties. The young ladies wear dresses and white gloves.
Pulling on her gloves reminds Harper that she’s stepping into an out-of-the-ordinary setting that requires her very best manners. “It makes you look more formal when you have the gloves on,” she said. “It makes me feel something … special, almost. It makes me feel different.”
To a one, the children seem happy to be there. When they enter the ballroom, each child greets the instructors with a firm handshake, direct eye contact and a bit of friendly conversation. The children then find their seats and give their full attention to the lesson.
Well, most of their attention. A small portion goes to silliness and whispering.
Leadership instruction is the first order of business, led by Craig Domeck, dean and associate professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University’s MacArthur School of Leadership. This component was added three years ago, in an effort to make the Cotillion Academy more relevant to a new generation of students. Domeck makes sure to distill his lessons into a series of short, highly focused concepts that the children not only retain, but reference from week to week.
Harper’s favorite leadership lesson thus far? “Lead yourself,” the notion that as an effective leader, she must first develop the self-control and presence of mind to make wise choices about her own behavior. “The leadership part is helping me a lot,” said Harper, who attends Delray Beach’s Unity School, plays the clarinet, and competes as a gymnast. “It’s a really good feeling when people want to look up to you.”
Wendy Robinson Fernsell teaches etiquette lessons, which cover topics such as table manners (elbows off the table) and the differences among salad, dinner and dessert forks. But the discussion also breaks new ground, exploring best practices for social media, texting and cellphone use.
Holding her iPhone, Fernsell began the discussion with a series of questions: “If we are dining with our families, should we have these out? Should our moms and dads have them out? What kind of message are we sending to the people at our table if we have them out?”
One young man’s hand shot into the air, and he answered confidently, “It says, ‘I don’t care about you.’ ”
Throughout the 75-minute session, there’s a steady exchange of ideas between students and instructors. At the break, the girls remain seated and the boys take their beverage orders, making sure each girl is served before helping themselves. No one wolfs down the mouth-wateringly thick gourmet chocolate chunk cookies. Everyone uses a napkin and the girls take off their gloves.
The evening closes with the dance segment, led by Jennifer Schwartz, an adjunct instructor of dance at Palm Beach Atlantic. The students learn new steps each month, and thus far have covered the waltz, foxtrot, salsa (“mild salsa,” one girl giggles), East Coast swing and square dancing.
You’d think it would be a big, dramatic production for boys and girls of this age to pair up and dance together, but they approach one another matter-of-factly, laugh at their missteps, and try really hard to get it right.
Cotillion Academy classes, held at the Wyndham Grand Jupiter at Harbourside Place, run from October through March. This season will culminate in the 62nd Annual Cotillion Ball on April 7 at the Four Seasons Palm Beach. The 2019-2020 Cotillion Academy co-chairs are Junior League members Kayla Foriere, a Cotillion graduate and former Miss Boca Raton, and Delray Beach resident Kelsey Puddington.
“While Cotillion itself is seen as an upper-class, old-school tradition, the Junior League of the Palm Beaches has worked to adapt the program to apply traditional etiquette to today’s world,” Puddington said. “We live in a very technology-focused environment, and teaching our Cotillion Academy students how to socially interact without a phone, to introduce themselves properly, to write thank-you notes, how to have proper table manners and so many other skills, just sets them apart in today’s world. The Junior League enjoys keeping this tradition alive and giving back to our community’s youth.”
“We wanted to take something that is so classic, and bring it into the 21st century,” added Lisa Bagocius, a Junior League member who was instrumental in the addition of the leadership component. Her son Benjamin is in the academy. “It’s all about investing in your children and teaching them things that never go out of style.”
Harper’s parents, Lisa and Thomas Mull, admired the Cotillion tradition and felt that the experience would serve their daughter well. “You can never reinforce etiquette and leadership enough at this age,” Lisa Mull said. “It’s so nice that Harper’s learning to be a confident, strong young lady, but still be gracious and kind.”
Harper’s 4-year-old brother, Marshall, is a bouncy, dark-haired fellow who shakes hands with a friendly smile and remembers to add, “Pleased to meet you.”
He’s already warming up for his turn to attend the Cotillion Academy. In his closet is a little pair of tan suede dress shoes. Most people would call them loafers, but Marshall has given them a different name. They’re his Cotillion shoes.