Side touch, side touch, back step – Growing Up Cotillion

All that salsa talk has got me nostalgic for my passion for dance and long-standing reputation as a noted icon of the art form.  It is true.  I accept my gift, and bear my trophies (well, trophy) and accolades with deep humility.  In fact, Baryshnikov and I frequently get together to discuss the sensual joy and reckless abandon of our bodies in what can only be called a primal form of expression.  Ahh, if I had only fox trotted to the right instead of tripping and falling to the left when I came to that fork in the road in my 20s, there would have been no stopping me and the resounding impact (thud) my talent would have made on the dance world.  Mais non!  Sadly, it was not to be.

You may wonder, “what inspired her great passion for the dance?”  My unhesitating response – Cotillion.  Eight long, L-O-N-G nerve-wracking years of monthly Cotillion classes at the Riviera Country Club, just as my brothers and sister had done before me.  My short white gloves and my pressed Florence Eisman dress served as an immaculate if ironic exterior to my anxiety-riddled pre-adolescent psyche that was destined to be damaged from the emotional shrapnel taken on from these 8 years of compromised ego.  I knew this even then.  A girl knows these things.

The Promenade

Authors Note: For those lucky individuals that were not dragged kicking and screaming to monthly Cotillion classes, these are the dance equivalent of finishing school, ostensibly to teach children of genteel upbringing the de rigeur social graces and requisite Samba, Fox Trot, Box Step and my personal fave, the “Rock Step” they will need to navigate through their privileged lives.

These experiences will be forever etched in my memory in a creepy/fearful/yet fabulous sort of way.  Our Cotillion teacher, Mrs Unander, was slim and elegant, but most importantly, she wore CLEAR PUMPS!  I had never seen such a thing – I was fascinated.  I had entered into the realm of the truly, deeply chic (this was before clear pumps were associated with strippers, of course).  She, and her back-up orchestra led by – wait for it – Commander Unander (say it a couple of times to get the feel and sound – COMMANDER YOUNANDER) – a-one and a-two’d (literally) me through my formative years.

The mortification of the whole experience was enough to do irreparable damage.  First there was the getting dressed part, and…those gloves!  Then the ritualistic hair styling, done by my mom, whose freakishly strong hands ran roughshod over my head, carving a part as deep and craggy as the Grand Canyon and yanking my hair into a baretted side part concoction, finishing it up with a flourish of dippity do.  The next hurdle is the journey, or more accurately, the arrival, and those last few moments snug in the safety of our no-safety-belt station wagon, wondering how I could make a run for it, and then the slow realization – no – pleeeeeease no – that my mom is going to actually come in with me.  Too much!

Once there, we (the humiliated) file into the beautiful cream marble ballroom which I imagined must be a direct copy of Versailles.  Girls to the right side; boys to the left.  The girls anxiously sit on chairs, which run single file along the length of the walls, like fifty girls awaiting execution from a pre-pubescent firing squad.

Enter our dance teacher, Mrs Unander, who steps onto the cream, carpeted stage, with her impeccable coif,  St John suit and clear plastic pumps (those SHOES!!)  With the orchestra (I mean orchestra!  Please – we’re like 10!!) behind her, she grabs her microphone and summons us all to nervous attention, along the lines of Frau Farbissna’s famous screech “Fire the Laser” given the inevitable shrill feedback from the microphone, which frankly, became a metaphor for the whole experience.

She instructs us to stand, and boys to choose their first dance partner, at which point they cross the dance floor, not looking supremely confident, to the waiting girls who, like me, have willed themselves, literally willed themselves, to a happy place far far away.  (My happy place had Snickers Bars, Peanut M&Ms and Movie Magazines).  This ritualistic process of waiting to be selected by a boy is about as angst-ridden and scary as it can get for a girl.  I still wake up in a cold sweat!

Once the god-awful selection process was undertaken, Mrs Unander, with her pointy shoes tap-tap-tapping out the steps, occasionally shooting dirty looks at Commander Unander (considered by us to be significantly older than his bride), would direct into her microphone,  “Promenade people, promenade”, at which point, with our partners, we would walk the circle of the entire room.  I suppose it was her version of a warm up lap, but it did ease the tension as we began to recognize ourselves in the other trapped deer promenading around the room, caught in the Versailles-like headlight of Cotillion.

Truthfully, the getting there and settling in was probably the hardest part of the experience.  Once the nerves started to calm and we realized that yet again, we had all been duped – conned into participating in this ritualistic exercise of which the soul benefit was to make our parents feel they were extending their birthright to us, their dance-impaired progeny, the playing field, um ball room floor, was immediately leveled, and it became us against them (the Unanders and our parents).

I went through this experience every month for eight years, which I find truly remarkable given I only remember a few of the dances.  Clearly a result of the trauma!  And diminished brain cells from all that hair styling by my mom.  Of all of the dances, I remember the “Hitch hike” best – “…walk…walk…walk…hitch-hike”, the ridiculousness of it makes it hard to forget, I imagine.  And seeing Mrs Unander do it, get all raw and street with it, well – its an image that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  I actually performed the infamous “Hitch Hike” while dancing with my kids on vacation recently, despite their mortified expressions and emphatic declarations that I was bringing shame onto the family.  But for me, Cotillion will be forever associated with the Fox Trot, my personal fave (side-touch, side-touch, back step), although I like to refer to it as my “signature” step.  Keith Small and I won a trophy one year for Best Fox Trot.  I have never been more proud yet so profoundly disturbed at the same time. 

Now, when one of those dancing shows comes on TV, I head downstairs to my office, fish out that trophy, and casually place it on the coffee table in front of my kids.  Just to remind them that their mom could have been the Britney Spears of her time.  Well, almost.  Of course, now we use the trophy to hold the bets we make every Monday night when my girlfriends come over, drink wine, watch the Bachelorette in guilty shame, and vote on which poor bugger is going to get tossed out that week.  Good clean, healthy fun and turns out, an excellent re-purposing of the trophy.

6 comments for “Side touch, side touch, back step – Growing Up Cotillion

  1. Auntie Craig
    July 23, 2010 at 3:57 am

    And this hidden prowess from a woman (with a trophy no less) who declined to dance with the Shirley Troupe and remained all regal like atop the Good Ship Lollipop waving to her adoring fans – now it makes sense!!!

  2. Michael Turpin
    July 23, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Lesley, too funny. It is the ultimate confirmation that I tell my boys all the time – ” The girls are just as freaked out as you are.” I find it ironic you are married to a Brit as I am as well. Lived in London for several years, grew up in LA and now live in CT. So much fodder between those three place alone. Worked across Europe and the Middle East for three years and was able to mine a lifetine of observations and stories from these travels. I have not ” evolved “enough yet to win a trophy and stay within my safety zone. I can only assume that your partner was that guy who unabashedly would sieze the floor and opportunity to dance with the girls when we all were lining the walls. Thanks for reaching out. That was a great story.
    Mike Turpin

  3. July 23, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Michael – so funny! I lived in CT for three years – Greenwich and Darien. Worked for a company called ActMedia. Where did you grow up and go to school in LA? Lesley

  4. July 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    How much fun! I can’t believe that 20 years after I did Cotillion, and I am sure the woman who was the head of it then was dead by the time you came around, they did not change a thing. I had not thought about that for a very long time.Thanks for the giggles. Did the boys have to use the hankerchief behind your back with you too???

    Jules xxx

  5. Keith Small
    July 29, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Hey Lesley!
    Just to clarify, we won the trophy for a several dances, not just the fox trot – PLEASE don’t try to minimize out triumph!!! :). Excluding our dance domination, I am still scarred for the whole Cotillion experience. I have 3 sons, none of which will be forced to attend Cotillion!!!! Thanks for writing a great story!


  6. July 29, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Thank you for posting that on my blog for all the world to see. Vindicated! Honestly – thought we only won for fox trot. Hear you on not scarring the boys for life. But a girl likes a boy that can dance, so take them aside and show them how its done! I guarantee at some point in their lives, they’ll thank you for it. (OK – maybe not too often, but…). Thanks for your comment. So fun to catch up with you.

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