This past Saturday I crashed a debutante ball. OK, I was an invited guest, but I frequently felt I’d made a wrong turn and walked into the wrong hotel ballroom. Days later, I’m still pondering the whole thing.
My son was asked by the daughter of our close friends to be her escort at her debutante ball. Her mother asked if he would wear his dress military uniform. Much to my surprise, he agreed to both. From that day on it was clear that, because of him, our entire family would be ball VIPs. (In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if my son were now a beneficiary in their family wills.) I highly recommend the role of mother of the escort, which carries no responsibilities, few financial costs, yet yields significant reflected glory. The exhausted mothers of the debutantes, by contrast, appeared well on the road to nervous collapse.
I had scant previous working knowledge of debutantes and their balls. I was slightly curious but the topic never really registered on my radar. I have no sisters or daughters. My mother was raised poor on a farm in Michigan. I was a tomboy who grew into a feminist and bookworm. I don’t remember any of my high school girlfriends “coming out” in society, and I was under the impression that the debutante ball was a relic of a bygone era and/or the deep south.
After we moved to our town a decade ago, I noted the photos in the local paper each year of the high school girls who were being “presented.” But again I didn’t pay much attention and said another quiet prayer of thanks that I was a boy mother. Hanging out in the gym, the football stadium, the tennis courts, the Boy Scout camporee and at work was more my speed.
When our invitation to the ball arrived, it said “black tie” and I was covertly excited to pull out of moth balls a satin midnight blue dress that I love and which I’d worn only once to a family wedding in 1999 – my last black tie event. I bought a new pair of shoes (Nordstrom on-line, free shipping and returns) as the dyed-to-match satin pumps from 1999 had been jettisoned to Goodwill. My husband predictably squawked when told he must rent a tux but quickly came around (I wasn’t passing up this photo op and he hates being left out of anything). I got a manicure and pedicure with cherry red polish. The day before the ball, I remembered I’d chucked my electric rollers sometime in the early 2000s and then couldn’t find my curling iron. This evidences the extent to which my grooming habits have deteriorated. Oh well! I giddily headed to Drybar to have my hair professionally washed and styled. I don’t know how celebrities manage this every weekend, but it was great fun to get the star treatment for a day.
And then there was the ball. My son was subjected to a four-hour rehearsal two nights before the ball, and was whisked away at 2:30 on ball day for photos. My husband and I blissfully arrived at the hotel at 6 with no assigned tasks and enjoyed the cocktail hour in the foyer before being ushered to our table in the ballroom. Then the lights dimmed and it was show time! The rather frazzled mothers of the debutantes were led in through a door at the rear of the ballroom, one by one, by their daughters’ escorts, formally introduced, promenaded to mid-dance floor with a flourish, announced again and then seated by escorts on white satin-covered chairs on the edge of the dance floor. Then each debutante dressed in a white ball gown and curtsying as she was introduced, was escorted onto the ballroom stage and into the spotlight by her father. It was clear that all parties had been admonished to smile broadly and enthusiastically even as intense lighting blinded them. As each girl’s turn progressed the smiles became increasingly forced, particularly Dad’s as he pondered the money spent for this tuxedoed walk. The master of ceremonies, a local politician, read a biography of each girl as she glided round the dance floor with her father while the band played her “presentation song”, ending with another introduction and curtsy mid-dance floor. We had all been reprimanded earlier by one of the Ladies in Charge not to cheer for our favorite girl like at a sporting event, which I found highly disappointing. Then there was a father-debutante/daughter waltz, followed by an escort-debutante waltz, followed by a mother-father/escort-debutante waltz. I was nervous there might be a mother-of-escort/escort waltz coming (requiring me to fake a waltz). I admired the impressive fruits of my son’s crash course in waltzing and bowing.
I have to admit; there were times I wanted to laugh out loud and other times I felt like I’d tottered through the looking glass. The ball was an odd mix of past and present; the Vanderbilts meet Title 9. One of the Ladies in Charge described the 18-month program of social and community service, cultural education, personal development training and etiquette instruction the debutantes completed. As these girls strolled the dance floor in their white tulle and lace with their big hair and heavy make-up and on their fathers’ arms, the Master of Ceremonies portrayed girls who are homecoming queens, cheerleaders, Girl Scout Gold Award recipients, musicians, and who love to bake; girls who put in countless volunteer hours for various charities. But I also heard descriptions of exceptional athletes – lacrosse, tennis, basketball, cross-country, scuba diving, softball, golf, and volleyball – who’ve won numerous awards and championships in their sports. One deb’s passion lay in robotics and engineering – working on cars with her dad is her favorite pastime. Another is a motivational speaker, drawing on her experience as an orphan adopted from Vietnam. Most have aspirations of attending major universities with plans to major in areas such as business, finance, international development, marketing or communications.
After the program was over and the dinner served, the dancing started. At first, the music too was a mix of old and new. My husband and I danced to Big Band, Beatles, Motown, Disco and Michael Jackson. Mercifully, no further waltzing ensued. Toward evening’s end, I recognized less of the music and the floor filled with young people. The white-dressed debs were right in the mix, surrounded by their youthful friends – jumping, fist pumping and singing along. One thing about a debutante has not changed; she is after all a teenage girl.
In the midst of this estrogen-fueled festivity, my husband and son had a surprisingly great time. I found it a fascinating experience. At my first opportunity, I nabbed the official photographer and had a portrait taken of dolled-up me with my son in his dress uniform and my husband in his tux (the photo op being of course the main reason for going). At midnight, before anything turned into a pumpkin, or I was left stranded on the wrong side of the looking glass, I headed home from my rather odd evening, satisfied with my photo op, having unexpectedly enjoyed my one and only debutante ball, and giving thanks for my son, who is not a girl.