Debutantes showcase pride in their heritage

TWENTY-ONE young women and their escorts wait behind the scenes to make their formal debut. With so many debutantes for the 42nd cotillion of the Links Inc. Oakland-Bay Area Chapter, the turnout had promised to be considerable. Indeed, laughing throngs outfitted in sleek black tuxedos and shimmering floor-length gowns crowd the San Francisco Palace Hotel ballroom on this last Saturday before the Christmas holidays.

It has taken eight months of application essays, workshops, retreats and dance lessons to get to this moment, in front of family and friends. The preparation, though, often begins long before. “It acknowledges achievements of our young people, ” explains Oakland-Bay Area Chapter president Katie Allen. “It’s more than a fund-raiser. We’re showcasing the talents of our youths.”

“I’ve been going to these things since when I was young, ” for more than 10 years, recounts Danielle Williams, 17, of San Ramon. “My brother, he was an escort.”

Kristin Turner’s roots in the ceremony go even further. “My mom was a debutante in 1969, ” says Kristin, 17, of Antioch. The family tradition of the cotillion is strengthened even more as her cousin Jennifer Johnson, a senior at the San Francisco School of Arts, joins Kristin as a debutante.

For Danielle and Kristin, partaking in this privileged tradition goes beyond a formal introduction into society. In exchange for learning the graces of polite society, they commit themselves to carrying out the values and heritage of their culture.

They have already demonstrated their potential. Danielle, an Amador Valley High School honor student, belongs to the African Student Union. She volunteers as the chapter teen vice president for Jack & Jill of America Inc., a nonprofit national youth organization, and tutors young boys in Richmond’s Pillars of Strength Inc. Kristin counsels peers, leads retreat teams and freshman family groups at Carondelet High School. For the past three Halloweens, she has overseen the school party provided for inner-city youths.

Besides listing these school and community activities in their application, they had to obtain letters of recommendation from the school and undergo an interview. Their escorts underwent a similar process. The girls also had to agree to sell ads for the souvenir program and devote the next six months to formal training. “Every Sunday was either a workshop or a rehearsal for the dance, ” Kristin says.

The financial investment can be considerable. A $1,000 fee (escorts pay $350) covers the expense of the workshops, photographs, dinner and other costs. “They hid a lot of stuff from me, ” jokes Johnny Williams about his wife and daughter’s spending sprees. “It’s fairly close to preparing for a wedding.”

“It’s easily $3,000 when you start including moms’ dresses and daughters’ dresses and the room, ” Kristin’s mother, Cheryl Cravanas-Turner, estimates. “Well, it’s paid for now, so out of sight, out of mind.”

More than knowing which utensil befits what course or what is the properly fitted dress, the training had the young women examine issues they face daily, and the future that suddenly seems closer than ever. What does it mean to be an African-American female? How do you respond to peer pressure? What options do you have to explore your career interests?

“We talked about self-esteem, goals, stuff like that, ” Danielle says. Often these sessions can be emotional, and some cry over a shared pain. Through these moments, the debutantes get a clearer glimpse of not only what lies before them, but within them. “It was always, Keep your head up, be confident in yourself, ‘ ” she says.

It’s this spiritual shift that truly defines their physical presence, as they at last step out one by one tonight on the ballroom floor. In traditional white, they exude a poised but vibrant youth. The communal debut promotes a camaraderie without distracting from their individuality.

The grandest part, and the most dreaded moment in training, comes in the social dances of the minuet, the waltz and the excruciating cha cha. The debutantes and their escorts focus upon a conscious rhythm as a thousand reminders replay through their minds. “Ladies, remember your fans Gentlemen, you must keep your hands up Are your lines straight? Are your bodies curved? Look at each other the whole time, not the floor You all rock and ride together.”

Any minor mishaps and there are very few disappear in the joy and magnificence of the evening. As a generation, they have already proven they can preserve the cultural heritage that has been passed on to them. As individuals, their families have already seen their transition to womanhood.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times.