SOCIAL GRACES

Since 1888, the Cotillion Club has carried on a legacy of camaraderie, tradition, and etiquette.

// photographed by Chelsey Ashford

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ELEGANT MOVES // Though there have been some allowances with time, much of the Cotillion’s time-honored traditions remain, such as leaving the dance floor free of alcohol and mandatory wearing of white gloves.

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{ DANCE ONE: THE GRAND MARCH }

“It’s just like family. It makes you feel good.

I go and a lot of my friends go,” shares George Zimmerman, senior vice-president of Coldwell Banker Commercial Caine. “We’re in our 70s, and we’ve been going for 40 to 50 years. You can look across the ballroom and sometimes see three generations within a family. We went when our parents were there and our grandparents. I guess that’s where you have that connectivity.” The native Greenvillian has served as secretary- treasurer of the Cotillion Club for 15 years, which also makes him unof cial historian and keeper of the scrapbook.

“Oh, there’s Buck Mickel.” George flips through brittle pages filled with faded photos, dance cards, and dog-eared clippings. Names and memories spill from his lips as easily as Champagne from a Waterford flute. As the second-oldest dance club in South Carolina, the Cotillion Club has storied rituals, conceived and upheld by men whose names line local streets, buildings, and beyond. Furman, Beattie, and Blythe. McKissick, Cleveland, and Earle. With little prompting, George takes us back to 1888.

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The War Between the States was over. The General Assembly officially designated Greenville a city and new doors of trade were opening. As the club’s historical notes show, prominent leaders decided it was time to establish a new organization to “sponsor formal balls in a correct and refined manner, among a congenial membership, which could also serve an appropriate place for young ladies to make their entrance into Society.” Captain Ellison Adger Smyth is considered “the founding father” of the Cotillion Club. He and his friends fashioned their new circle after the Saint Cecelia Society of Charleston (the oldest social organization in the state). The original purposes and committee structure stand to this day, as does the insistence upon specific attire and etiquette.

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{ DANCE TWO: THE WALTZ }

As George likes to say, “It’s just a social club. It’s a men’s social club for a dance.” Per custom, that lone dance, the only invitation-driven event the club hosts all year, is held each January. As they’ve done for decades, some 400 members and guests arrive at the Poinsett Club for a specific number of stylized dances, a seated dinner, and then more dances.

Upon entry, everyone moves along a receiving line of of cers and committee members. Men seldom wear the top hats and capes of past generations, but they do don white gloves, a white tie, and tailed tuxedos. “You can do it tastefully. If you don’t do it tastefully with etiquette and stuff like that, then take your white tie and tails off, and put on slacks, or jeans. We do that the rest of the year.” George continues to joke, “Why not take a bath once a year?” The ladies also wear long satin, or kid-leather, gloves reaching up to their elbows.

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“The basic foundation of the dance has not changed,” George explains. The dance starts the way it’s been done for as long as I can remember.” At the scheduled hour, all couples move to the elegantly appointed ballroom to hold the first dance called the SocialGracesFEB16pullquote2Grand March. By tradition, the Grand March is performed to the song “Colonel Bogey March” (made famous in Bridge on the River Kwai). One couple starts the march, and as they circle the room, they pick up new couples at certain intervals, to create two large, rotating pinwheels. The Cotillion Club president and his wife always lead the March. This year’s president: Smyth McKissick, great- grandson of founding-father Captain Smyth.

Although not as strict as the Saint Cecelia Society’s ball, where ladies cannot walk unescorted across the dance floor, decorum still presides here, as well. No drinking on the dance floor. No smoking on the dance floor. Gloves mandatory on the dance floor. And each couple uses a ribbon-threaded dance card, outlining the evening’s events, down to the exact minute the fourth waltz will begin.

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DINNER & DANCING // The Cotillion was founded as a men-only club but now invites single daughters of family lines to the ball. After a series of formal dances and a seated dinner, the floor opens to “free form” dancing, which includes the state dance of South Carolina: The Shag.

{ DANCE THREE: THE TWO STEP }

Over time, this bastion of Southern tradition has adopted some adjustments, especially with venues and music. Early on, with a smaller membership, the ball was held in private homes and then in downtown dance halls, such as Williams Hall and Cleveland Hall. In 1924, it moved to the Poinsett Hotel, where patrons rented rooms to set up intimate visiting areas (and stocked-bars during Prohibition). In 1975, the ball shifted to the Poinsett Club, which was a natural location with 75 percent of Cotillion members also paying dues to belong to the Poinsett Club.

No surprise, music has brought much debate and occasional controversy, as orchestras from as far away as Connecticut try to meet the varied tastes of three generations in attendance. Rumor has it “The Mexican Hat Dance” created a huge hullaballoo in 1947. In 1980, Judge Clement Haynsworth, Jr., wasn’t happy, either, and led a formal letter of complaint with fellow members. George breaks into a smile while reading the document, “We in recent years have come to a complete break in our tradition.” He defends the honorable judge, saying Haynsworth and his wife put on a beautiful waltz.

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Although steeped in charming rituals, George outlines why members must take note of the times. “If we don’t change, we die,” he explains. “There will be change. You’ve got to do that by virtue of it. We now start off with waltzes and then go to shagging. If we just did waltzes, no one would dance. You know, these young kids want to go out there and whoop, whoop.” The described whoop, whoop is now reserved for after-dinner. This is when dance card lines once filled with box steps and difficult Lancers are left open for free-style.

Women have witnessed a transformation in treatment across the decades, as well. Although a men-only club, members have re-written rules to ensure that single daughters are invited to the balls, and that when married, their husbands can gain entry. Initially structured as a platform for young ladies to meet well-bred suitors, George clarifies, “We don’t do debutantes.” Some years, the club has given debutantes a spotlight, even allowing them to stand in the receiving line, but daughters do not make formal debuts at the annual ball.

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{ DANCE FOUR: THE SHAG }

Active membership has crept up due to demand, where it’s currently capped at 200. With family trees gaining limb after limb, the waiting list now bulges with sons, sons-in-law, and men new to Greenville. Nominated males, over 21 years of age, can sit on the list for five years or more, before receiving an invitation to join the club. George is proud of the current mix of legacies and SocialGracesFEB16pullquote1newcomers. “I think that’s what makes this club kind of unique, the blend of generations of family and first-generation members. That has kept the life-blood of the club strong.”

In the 1920s, the Cotillion Club was considered the “arbiter of social life in Greenville.” Today, its active roster boasts doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, publishers, bankers, and business leaders. Gentlemen who embrace deep-seeded roots of courtesy and sophistication. George praises those coming up behind him, standing tall in the tradition set by their forefathers. “These younger guys come on to the committees, and it gets instilled in them. The things we traditionally do, they start to pick that up. In fact, they run with it more than we older members.” His sons are reaching for the reigns within the club, just as he grabbed them from his father when he joined in 1968. “It’s interesting to see the young men pick up right where we’re leaving off. I think we’ll leave it in good hands.”

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{ DANCE FIVE: THE NEW GUARD }

“Shhhh. Now everybody listen.” Angie Mosley commands the attention of a ballroom full of middle school students as she teaches them the cha-cha. As director of the Greenville Chapter of the National League of Junior Cotillions, she’s ensuring the next generation knows the swing from a fox-trot, and which fork to use first during dinner. “I’ve always said manners are like the rules of life,” she cheerfully instructs. “Just like rules to play a board game, and rules for a football game, there are rules for life.”

Over the past 16 years, thousands of children have learned those rules with “Mrs. Mosley” at Thornblade Country Club and the Poinsett Club. “I always say Cotillion teaches them skills they will carry through life. Things like how to greet people, make an introduction, make eye contact. It allows them to grow and build confidence.” She loves the letters she receives from former students describing how they aced an interview, impressed a teacher, even secured a date, because of what they learned with her at Cotillion.

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Getting them to Cotillion can be difficult. The young boys squirm in their ties, the girls tug at their dresses, but smiles break out when the music starts. Tender lips count one-and-two, and one-and-two, as they master a variety of dances and learn to hold a real dialogue with others. “Social media has had the biggest impact on the courtesies in life,” explains Angie. “Kids today don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations with each other.”

While the world tugs at today’s youth in so many ways, and not all positive, Angie stands firm in her belief that mastering even a bit of etiquette will lead to success. “It’s hard to believe we are going to phase out of social graces. As disappointing as our world can be, I can’t believe there won’t be a place for that somehow, some way. I would like to think manners never go out of style.” Especially in the South where tradition is a birthright, and courtesy as rich as the clay is red.

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