With poise and grace, high school girls in flowing white gowns curtsied and waltzed last night in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, dazzling an audience of more than 700 people at the Youth Cotillion.

"This is a dream come true for me," said Melissa J. Foster, 17, a student at St. Frances Academy. She was one of 15 debutantes, all high school seniors, who took part in the city's sixth annual cotillion.

"I've wanted to be a debutante since the first year it was held," Foster said. "Seeing the girls all dressed up just made me want to be the belle of the ball."

Making that dream a reality took perseverance and hard work. The debutantes and their escorts endured five months of dance lessons and etiquette training, a requirement to take part in the cotillion.

"Learning the dances was definitely the hardest part," said Je'Naya Aydlett, 17, who will graduate this year from Edmondson Westside Vocational High School. "But once I got the steps down, it was smooth sailing."

The teen-agers started arriving at the downtown hotel at 3 p.m., nearly six hours before they would appear in front of hundreds of relatives, friends and city officials who had gathered in the Constellation Ballroom.

In a suite above the ballroom, an army of seamstresses made emergency alterations to hems, crinolines and bodices. As the debutantes waited to enter the ballroom, they practiced their curtsies -- a deep knee bend with the right leg extended behind.

"I even prayed that God would help me to remember all the steps," Foster said.

Although the elaborate rite of passage may call to mind exclusive society traditions, the Youth Cotillion does not focus on family status or income. Participants are recruited from the ranks of young people who volunteer as tutors and coaches, or do other work at city recreation centers.

"The goal is to teach the teen-agers how to meet life's challenges and be responsible citizens," said Marlyn J. Perritt, director of Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks, sponsor of the cotillion since its inception.

"My daughter was never one to be shy, but this has really taught her how to be a young lady," said Leslie Murphy, whose debutante daughter, Brandi, danced with her high school art teacher to "Turn Around" during the father-daughter dance -- just before the debutantes and their escorts performed an elaborate waltz.

"What I'll remember most about this experience is the people I've met," said Brandi, 17, who hopes to become a model or an actress. "I've really learned how to network, to reach out to others. And in the process, I made some wonderful friends."

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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