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Balls and beautillions, long a tradition of the marrying Black middle class in Maryland, carry on with a new purpose

Dr. Camille Hammond beamed with pride as she watched her 17-year-old sons in the throng at the ballroom of the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront. This spring day was when Kai and Aaron completed their “beautillion” process. That’s when, for her, they became men.

“I feel like they got a little older that evening. I heard them say, ‘I’m a man now,’” said Hammond, a physician who lives in Reisterstown.

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A beautillion for young men, like a cotillion or a debutante ball for young women, is a rite of passage that formally presents teenagers to society as adults. While many teens mark that milestone on a graduation stage or at a school prom, a group of Black Marylanders has its own traditions.

These events have been carried on for generations, particularly among middle-class and affluent Black families. They began as a way to introduce young people to potential spouses. They have evolved into building professional networks and long-lasting social circles, and they’ve provided ways to connect Black students who can feel isolated in suburban and private schools with one another.

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The process usually involves months of mentorship, dance lessons, etiquette classes and service projects. For instance, the beautillion that the Hammonds took part in cost $1,000 per participant and the process began in September.

Although some students participate grudgingly, almost all tout the benefits of the system. Aaron Hammond, a junior at Gerstell Academy in Finksburg, was apprehensive about the process — particularly regarding learning some of the formal dances performed during the beautillion.

“I was kind of passive-aggressive. To think that I was acting like that — and the dances were the most memorable part of the night,” he said. “I guess it was kind of worth it to go through all the pain, if you will, to learn the dances and be annoyed, to dance with family and friends.”

While rooted in the South, Black cotillions and debutante balls can be found throughout the country — especially in places with active Black fraternities, sororities and other service-based social clubs.

For example, the April 23 beautillion the Hammonds participated in was hosted by Jack and Jill of America Inc., a group founded in 1938 by Black American mothers with the goal of bringing together their children for social and cultural enrichment. A June debutante ball will be hosted by the Baltimore County chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., the nation’s first Black sorority.

Jack and Jill children typically attend private or suburban schools, which often lack diversity, making these activities and traditions necessary, according to Camille Hammond.

“I wanted them to connect with other kids of a similar background,” she said.

Hammond, who went through the debutante process growing up in Richmond, Virginia, wanted her children to experience it. She also wanted to make sure her offspring — who were enrolled in Jack and Jill at age 4 — were exposed to like-minded children who valued Black excellence.

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Beautillions and cotillions remain an important part of Black society, according to Lynn M. Selby, a lifestyle expert and executive director of the Caroline Center, an education and career skills training program in Baltimore. She also teaches etiquette classes to Black high school students and is a member of several Black social and service organizations, such as Delta Sigma Theta and The Links, Incorporated.

“It allows young people early on to prepare for the corporate environment, how to learn proper etiquette, how do you network, meet and make small talk,” she said.

“I know some people will say these are ‘bourgeoisie Black people.’ But there is more value than that,” Selby said. “It has evolved some beyond arranged marriages.”

More than a love match

Although the origin of debutante balls was to foster future marriages, current organizers and participants say the mission has evolved. Now, these events prepare people for the realities of the world — from how to safely interact with police officers to how to play golf.

“Now, in African American culture, the goal of debutante cotillions is to prepare you for [higher] education and pushing you in that direction,” said Alana Younger, 17, a senior at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson.

Alana will make her debut in early June at the Precious Pearls Debutante Cotillion, thrown by the Upsilon Epsilon Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

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“I am glad it has changed. As a young lady, having the idea of marriage pushed on you sends the wrong message,” Alana said. “Education is one of the most important things that young women should be taught.”

Alana has been impressed with the workshops and community service requirements.

“They taught us a lot about navigating life after high school — realizing that we will be in the real world after this,” she said.

Alana, who plans to study nursing at Coppin State University, also values professional connections she made at the workshops and remains in contact with the health care professionals she met.

Kai Hammond, a junior at the Carver Center, said the beautillion “went above my expectations.”

“It’s important because all around you is just Black excellence. Everyone had scholarships to college, whether it was athletics or academic,” he said.

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Aaron Hammond said he would recommend the process to other students.

“Honestly, I would, so that they can have the experience about being around other African Americans who are doing great things,” he said.

Aaron’s most memorable part of the process was a “Millionaire Manners” etiquette workshop.

“It was a great refresher from what our parents taught us,” he recalled.

Selby knows that some might criticize the training as encouraging students to play the game of respectability politics and conform to white cultural practices.

“I think there is something to be said for authenticity. They are not asking them not to be their authentic selves,” Selby said. “But there are still societal norms. If you don’t believe in that, you will be sadly mistaken. You can’t go to the law firm dinner having your elbows on the table or slurping soup.”

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Networking for the future

Alana enjoyed the process of meeting the other debutantes, none of who went to her school.

“I feel like I have built a sisterhood and a bond,” she said. “It has opened me up to other lifestyles and other people — people who are interested in some of the same things I am. Hearing their stories pushes me harder.”

Thinking of the future, Alana added: “I would want all of my children to be a part of something like this. It has changed my perspective on a lot [of things]. These are all things that teenagers need.”

Kai and Aaron’s father, Dr. Jason Hammond, valued the interaction that his sons have had with the other beaus.

“We’ve been able to see their growth,” he said. “They’ve matured.”

Hammond, who did not go through a beautillion process growing up, now sees its value.

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“It has been really illuminating,” said Hammond, who is a physician like his wife.

Kai and Aaron’s sister, Simone Hammond, will participate in a cotillion in the fall. “The beautillion made me a lot more excited for the cotillion. That community and environment is one I’m not part of as much as I would like,” Simone said.

Simone, also a junior at Gerstell Academy, said she plans to expose any future sons and daughters to the process.

“It was a fantastic experience,” she said. “I hope a lot more Black kids get to hear about it and experience it. It does take up a lot of time, but it’s worth it.”

Push from parents

Kelly Mason’s two sons, Jordan and Cole, went through the beautillion process. At the beginning, she was more excited than they were, but by the end, they realized the benefits.

“I knew it was the last time I had time with that child before they went to college,” the Columbia resident said. “They did it willingly, but begrudgingly. By the end, you could see the group becoming more accepting.”

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The night of the beautillion, she knew her elder son, Jordan, was hooked.

“He looked like he was having so much fun. I had never seen my son dance before,” she said.

For Mason, Jack and Jill and the balls reinforced a sense of self for her children — particularly as they felt isolated in predominantly white spaces, such as suburban schools.

“I just think it is a great place for your kids. We all want to expose them to the best they can do. I remember my daughter wanted her hair to be blond at 5; there weren’t other Black girls around,” Mason said. Daughter Brooke was later an escort at a beautillion, and now attends Spelman College, a historically Black institution in Atlanta.

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The tradition of the beautillion ultimately carried over to Mason’s children attending historically Black colleges and universities.

“Once they applied and visited, it was a done deal. Having them be in that type of group, it was a camaraderie that they felt when they went to an HBCU, as well,” she explained.

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Three of Cynthia Bell’s four children have participated in a beautillion, whether as a beau or a dance escort. Her youngest son will participate next year, according to Bell, the president of the Columbia chapter of Jack and Jill. The chapter has hosted biannual beautillions since 1983, and 300 male teens have gone through the process.

“It’s an outstanding program that focuses on leadership, life and cultural exposure, and philanthropic giving,” said the Clarksville resident.

Bell added: “It just gives you so much hope for the future. You hear so much bad in the African American community. This shines a positive light on what our men are doing in the community.”

Camille Hammond pointed out the ultimate results of the debutante process: guests throughout the ballroom who are politicians, doctors, judges and college presidents.

“These are the people of our community,” she said. “These kids are all going to college. Their biggest worry is getting a C on a test. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, this is our reality. This is to be celebrated.”


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