Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

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Readying for the cotillion

Tracy Rawlinson listened intently as Lady Esther Langston talked about "proper lifestyle" and "social graces."

Speak "not loud, but in low tones, with distinction and integrity," Langston told the 30 young women. Eat healthy: No smoking, no drinking, she said.

The high school juniors, many accompanied by their parents, are prospective debutantes. The 37th Annual Spring Tea on Sunday in the Gray Elementary School library was their introduction to a six-month program of workshops, social gatherings and community service.

In November, if they continue successfully in the program, the teens will don white gowns and make their formal bow to society at a Cinderella-style ball at the Flamingo Hilton.

Debutante cotillions, more common in the South and East, are known as a way for the well-to-do to introduce their daughters to society.

In Las Vegas, the annual cotillion, sponsored by Les Femmes Douze (the Ladies Twelve), is a longstanding civic-social tradition among young blacks.

The program brings different generations together to prepare the young women for life. Its focus is geared toward college preparation, including self-raised scholarship funds, etiquette and community service.

Since its 1963 inception, the group has formally presented 664 teens. Twenty-three were presented in November at the Flamingo. This year's ball will be the 37th.

"Families have presented two, three or four girls from a single family," said Billie Knight Rayford, member and Les Femmes Douze spokeswoman, said. "It's quite a tradition."

For Tracy Rawlinson, whose older sister was a debutante in 1996, the sisterhood and "learning to be a lady" are the most appealing aspects of the program.

The program's positive focus and its sisterhood are what draw prospective debs each year, according to Lady Traci Peterson, a committee member and 1980 debutante. "High school can be so difficult."

From April until November's ball, the teens will meet every other Monday. As the ball gets closer, the girls will meet every Monday. Although the club is predominantly black, it's open to all racial groups.

Names are drawn at the beginning of each year's program to see which older member will mentor which girl. The mentor, known as a "big sister," attends the younger girl's activities, such as cheerleading.

"Having positive black women role models is good," said Rawlinson, a junior at Western who is going through the program with her friend Dellene Webb. "There's a lot out there, but to have them sponsor us, to show that they really care, is a plus."

Les Femmes Douze was formed by a group of local educators looking for ways to provide young women with an opportunity to raise funds for college scholarships and give them an opportunity to show their poise and character, according to founding member Barbara Kirkland, then a teacher at Kit Carson Elementary School.

Unlike in the South, where black universities were prevalent, many young women in Las Vegas at the time were not planning on continuing their education at four-year institutions, she said. "At that time there was not a thrust in the Afro-American community."

But the program prospered and within five years, young women were announcing their college plans. Today, former debutantes are everything from city councilwomen to teachers and doctors, Kirkland said.

Many of the founding members, such as Kirkland, are still active in the program. The group's auxiliary is composed of former debutantes, a handful of whom were at Sunday's Spring Tea.

"Not only do we mentor young ladies, but we bond with each other," Lady Jackie Brantley, a member said. "It doesn't just happen the year you're a debutante. We bond for a lifetime."

The program does not accept young women with criminal records or those with children. "This is for the young and beautiful, not the young and restless," Langston told the group.

Proper attire is required of the girls at the Monday meetings. Those wearing jeans, cut-offs or halter tops will be sent home.

"We're very proud of our African-American women, and we want you to be the best you can be," Langston told the teens.

By the time the young women reach the Spring Tea, most have made their mark in some way.

Prospective debs must be dedicated students, leaders in their schools, have a minimum 2.5 grade point average and a good discipline record. They must be referred by their high school counselor.

Bad attitudes are not acceptable. The debs are evaluated three times during the program and are given merit points based on activities, attendance and attire. The one receiving the highest number is crowned Miss Debutante at the cotillion.

Prospective debutantes seen behaving at school in a "unlady-like manner" will be spoken to by mentors.

Zuri Langhorn, a senior at Valley High School, was a debutante at last year's ball. For high school girls who don't drink or smoke and are at school to learn, this program is a chance to fit in, she said.

"It gives you something else to do."

Starting next month the girls will contribute 40 hours of community service at a nonprofit organization of their choice.

Starr Gamble, an aspiring fifth grade teacher whose two aunts were debutantes, says the scholarships will be a big help.

The young women sell advertisements for the souvenir books distributed to debutantes and advertisers. A minimum of $600 in ads must be sold by each debutante. That money funds the ball and scholarships.

The teens sell the ads in August and September. Nearly $300,000 in scholarship money has been raised over the program's 36 years.

"Some have sold enough ads to pay for tuition and books," Esther Langston, president of Les Femmes Douze, said.

The cotillion on the third Saturday of November is the night the debs anticipate most eagerly. The ball creates memories of a lifetime, Langston said. "I still remember mine from 44 years ago."

A professional choreographer will teach the girls a formal group dance that will be presented in the ball's finale. They will be accompanied by a male escort approved by parents.

Cities nationwide, including Denver and Kansas City, Mo., still have thriving debutante balls. With the exception of a canceled ball because of Y2K concerns, New York's International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City has been an annual tradition for 44 years. The National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball has been held for 50 years in Washington, D.C.

"This is a historical event that has gone on for years in the South," Kirkland said.

Kirkland was presented years ago by her brother's fraternity in Shreveport, La. Kirkland's daughter was also a debutante. "And now we're waiting for our granddaughters to come along."

Kristen Peterson covers community news for the Sun. She can be reached at (702) 259-2317 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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