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Ballast Point: Cotillion leads kids in steps to refinement

Tampa Yacht and Country Club's dance class molds fourth- through eighth-graders into ladies and gentlemen.

By AMY SCHERZER
Published November 14, 2003

For an hour each week, boys traded their cleats and mitts for jackets and ties. They counted steps instead of strikes. They tangoed instead of tangled.

It was part of Cotillion, a dance and etiquette class at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club.

Everyone knew the drill.

No poking, no teasing. No boxer shorts escaping from droopy trousers.

Just waltzing with girls, equally disgusted by the pairings.

"Good thing we have gloves," said Macy Moore, a fourth-grader at St. Mary's Episcopal Day School, after a slow dance.

Ten-year-old Ford Cheeseman was more diplomatic.

"It's good for people that like to dance, but I do sports," said the Gorrie Elementary fifth-grader, who would have preferred to play baseball.

The only consolation?

"You get snacks," he said.

Cotillion has been a tradition at the club since 1976. The eight-week program is open to 90 fourth- through eighth-graders - members and nonmembers - and costs $80. Every year, there's a waiting list.

Most kids show up willingly, looking to become more comfortable at school dances, parties, weddings and other events.

A few claim their parents didn't give them a choice. Some parents admit to bribery.

"They'll thank us someday," said Linda Scarritt, mother of Mac, an eighth-grader at St. John's Episcopal Day School.

"They moan and groan, but deep down, there's a part of them enjoying it," she said. "I tell him, "If a guy knows how to dance, play a musical instrument and cook, you've got it made when you grow up.' "

Cotillion concluded Oct. 29 with a tea dance and formal dinner. More than 200 parents, grandparents and siblings came to watch the graduates whirl on the dance floor. Then fathers took their daughters' hands and mothers partnered with their sons. Instructors Tim and Michelle Mason demonstrated a waltz.

"Dance teaches a great deal of etiquette," Tim Mason said. "It's a social grace itself."

Over the years, hundreds of children have learned their social skills at Cotillion, said founder Toni Everett, a prominent South Tampa real estate agent. After discovering the program at the Palm Beach Bath & Tennis Club, she lured the teacher to Tampa for the classes.

Culbreath Isles resident Sandy Frye remembers when her daughters, Gillian and Victoria, took Cotillion in the late 1970s.

"There was a lucky spot and if you were standing on it, you could win a dollar," Frye said. "That's what kept them coming back."

Yacht club members Joyce Covington and Cookie Bailey started teaching Cotillion sometime around 1980 and retired in 2001. Member Leslie Jennewein revived it in September. Her children, Andrew, 15, and Elizabeth, 13, had already taken it, "but my daughter wanted to learn more dances," she said.

Jennewein recruited the Masons, professional dancers who own Easidance Ballroom on Gunn Highway. Now retired from ballroom competition, the couple ranked in the top 12 internationally.

The couple chose music and dances they thought the kids would enjoy. They skipped the fox-trot and tango but insisted on the waltz. A 1950s-theme class introduced students to swing and jive. South of the Border Week brought salsa, mambo and merengue.

During two of the classes, Jennewein taught table manners.

"Boys, pull out the young ladies' chairs before seating yourselves," she said as the boys escorted the girls to tables set with white linens, china and, even, a champagne flute.

"You don't have to be a West Point cadet, but you do have to sit up straight," she said.

Lessons continued as they ate.

Napkins go on laps. No fiddling with the silverware. Chew with your mouth closed. Never reach across the table.

No one dared use their fingers to eat the chicken fingers.

Assistant yacht club manager Scott Fairbairn offered his expertise.

"Start each course with the outside utensil," he told them. "The far left fork, that's for salad. The far right spoon, that's for soup."

Finally, the sparkling apple juice appeared. It was time for a toast.

"To the last day of Cotillion," he said, holding his glass in the air. "Congratulations on making it through."

The students clinked their crystal, then sipped the bubbly. Not a slurp was heard.

- Amy Scherzer can be reached at 226-3332 or scherzer@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 13, 2003, 13:29:40]

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