In late October, about two dozen young Baltimore women trickled into a dim classroom in the Mount Royal Recreation Center in Bolton Hill. Dressed neatly, they scrunched themselves into small chairs and sat quietly, mesmerized by video images of swirling white ball gowns and the sound of violin-heavy waltzes.
"I just get a feeling inside whenever I look at this; it just does something to me inside," said Desirae Raines, a senior at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, as the tape of the city's 1994 Youth Cotillion played over and over on a television set.
That feeling returned Saturday night -- only stronger -- as Desirae and 14 other debutantes, and their escorts, who had been
through five months of dance lessons and etiquette training, took part in this year's Youth Cotillion.
In flowing white gowns of their own, and attended by 24 younger teens, the debutantes, all high school seniors, held the spotlight in a ballroom of the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel. It was an evening of waltzes and curtsies, shimmering satin and dainty hankies, bow-ties and cummerbunds.
And the uncertain, self-conscious young women chosen from those who had gathered months earlier in the recreation center classroom had been transformed -- they were poised, confident and graceful.
But don't mistake the Youth Cotillion for the exclusive country-club traditions that predate it. Participants for this event -- sponsored since 1991 by the city Department of Recreation and Parks -- aren't chosen for their family income or status.
The teen-agers, from middle-class neighborhoods such as Waverly and Gardenville, are recruited from the ranks of young ++ people who volunteer as tutors and coaches, or do other work at city recreation centers. Dresses for the debutantes and attendants are designed and hand-sewn by volunteers.
And though the girls do learn how to waltz and how to set a formal table, the cotillion is as much about instilling self-esteem as it is about teaching social graces.
"We're looking for a positive attitude, interest, motivation and commitment," said cotillion coordinator Zenobia McClendon at the October interviews for prospective participants. "We're not looking for the polish, because that will come."
And it did come -- after months of work.
A week after the interviews, at a reception, many teen-agers had just a vague notion of what lay ahead. A few seminars and dance lessons, then a big ball, they said.
But what lay ahead was key to their transformation. They attended workshops and rehearsals, worked on community service projects and took part in other activities every Saturday.
In one session, Dr. Harry Smith of Baltimore City Community College gave the teen-agers a rapid-fire lesson in impromptu public speaking. Pointing to his victims at random, he told them to stand up, say their name and state their goals -- leaving barely a second between speakers.
"Speak up," he ordered some.
"Takes you too long," he told others before passing them over.
After calling on almost everyone, Dr. Smith's voice softened: "If you're planning to be a leader, in terms of developing your own skills, it's very important to understand communication. If you speak well and write well, you don't even have to know what you're talking about."
Since January, most of the Saturday meetings -- as well as a few Sunday afternoons and weeknights -- were spent on dance lessons.
In a tile-floored cafeteria at the recreation center, Jerene DeShields put the debutantes, escorts and fathers through their paces.
"Starting with the right foot, everybody's right foot steps forward and then out, then cross it behind," she said at a January rehearsal, her insistent voice providing the rhythm for the circle of couples. "Step on it . . . try it again . . . forward out and back step, step."
The debutantes and their escorts -- many wearing bulky construction boots -- struggled through the delicate steps of "The Skaters Waltz." When Ms. DeShields turned on the tape of lilting waltz music for the first time, someone in the circle said, "The music's messing me up."
But Ms. DeShields -- who described her heavy-handed teaching style as "trying to get the street out of them, and put the ballroom in them" -- would not relent.
"You're going to dream of this music," she said. "You're going hate this music, but you're going to do it, and it's going to be beautiful."
And a few weeks later they looked more graceful, though they still counted the steps under their breath.
After some Saturday lessons, the teen-agers spent several hours on community service projects. They cleared leaves at Carrie Murray Recreation Center in Leakin Park. They held a New Year's party for abused children. And they attended workshops on topics such as leadership, money management and personal appearance.
They came to recognize the value of the lessons and volunteer work, as well as the socializing that took place between.
"It seems like the ball is important, but it's not as important awhat goes on here," said debutante Venesa A. Johnson, 17, a senior at Western High School.
"These are kids that have to get up every Saturday morning at eight o'clock to be some place, and that means there's a dedication within," said Rose Backus Davis, whose son Riven Jr. was an escort.
And though the elaborate rite of passage seems old-fashioned to some, the participants and their parents say the cotillion's community service theme gives it relevance.
"I like how this is set up, how it's kids who volunteer," said debutante Shannon Doyle, 18, who attends Roland Park Country School on an academic scholarship. "I know in my income bracket and under, the kids don't usually get a chance to do this."
Shannon, who lives in Gardenville, said she had longed to wear the white debutante dress ever since she signed up to be an attendant in 1993 and 1994.
The teen-agers started arriving at the Omni for Saturday's cotillion at 3:30 p.m., nearly six hours before they would appear in front of almost 600 relatives, friends and city officials gathered in the International Ballroom.
For some, the day started much earlier. Desirae was at her hairdresser's door at sunrise to make sure she was the first customer. Organizers told the young women to wear their hair down and soft.
In a suite above the ballroom, a battalion of volunteer seamstresses made emergency alterations to hems, crinolines and bodices. As the debutantes waited their turn to enter the ballroom, they giddily practiced their curtsies -- a deep knee bend with the right leg extended behind.
And the evening moved rapidly from anticipation, to tears, to relief.
William Johnson gave his daughter Venesa's hand a quick squeeze before escorting her into the ballroom, where she would later be crowned Queen of the Cotillion as well as Miss Congeniality. Mr. Johnson, who works with drug addicts, delayed his knee surgery so he could attend the cotillion, even though he was not able to dance.
'A long road to success'
"It's been a long road to success," he said. "I've seen her grow. She's really become a young lady."
As each debutante presented her mother with a rose, tears streamed down Shannon Doyle's face. Her mother, Jan Doyle, cried, too.
"I was more nervous than I thought I would be," Shannon said later. "I was so afraid I would fall over on my curtsy."
But no one fell during her center-stage curtsy. And the audience cooed in appreciation as fathers and daughters danced to Harry Belafonte Jr.'s "Turn Around," just before the debutantes and their escorts performed an elaborate waltz.
After the Youth Cotillion ended, debutante Joi Turner reflected on the past few months.
"We've learned a lot of little things in the workshops," said the 18-year-old senior at the Bryn Mawr School. "The most special thing I'll remember are the people."