shall we dance?

Middle school students anxiously wait before the start of their dance lesson at the Cotillion classes held in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Throughout the evening, the students learned the steps to a Waltz and Swing dance; how to properly sit in a chair and how to introduce yourself when approaching a potential dance partner. The boys also learned how to escort a partner on and off the dance floor.

The kids shuffle in and plop down on folding chairs placed neatly around the  edges of the room. They alternate by gender when they sit—boy, girl, boy, girl. The girls wear fancy dresses. One gets tripped up by her high heels before she even makes it to her chair. The boys wear suit jackets and fiddle endlessly with their ties.

Once all the children are seated, they introduce themselves. The boys turn to their left and shake hands with the girl sitting there. Then they turn to the right and repeat. Everyone is a sixth-grade student living in Mt. Lebanon, so many of them already know each other. But, like many things at the Cotillion class at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the seating and introductions are an arranged formality, meant to remind everyone of what a proper greeting should look and sound like.

The class has been around forever. (Since 1957, to be exact.) The enrollment is normally capped at 100, but because interest has been so high lately, the church recently raised the max to 130. The sixth-graders at St. Paul’s get first priority. All other sixth-graders in Mt. Lebanon who appear in their school directories receive applications in the mail. To guarantee their child’s spot, parents pretty much have to fill out and return the application within 24 hours of receiving it. Names are drawn from a hat on the second day to fill any remaining spots. By the third day, forget it. Cotillion is filled.

Jack Murphy (center) and his partner Emilee Green react to watching his friends practice the akward steps of the Waltz.

The goals of the class, which meets nine times and runs from September through May, are clear and simple: To teach the children manners and etiquette in a ballroom dancing setting, making them comfortable in social situations that can often feel otherwise. And, maybe most important, to convince them that just being nice is often the best path to take.

“As much as we can teach our children kindness, which is really all that manners are, and get them thinking about putting someone else’s needs ahead of their own—that’s important,” says Melissa Bailey, Hoodridge Drive, who has chaired Cotillion for the last four years.

Boys and girls are partnered up randomly to dance every month, and many kids will initially roll their eyes or stand there with their arms folded. “It’s one dance,” Bailey says they are reminded. “You can be nice for one dance. You can talk to [your partner]. You can be polite. That’s an important lesson. Kids don’t realize the impact of their words on someone else. I believe that by May the kids kind of get it. We’re not setting them up to marry them.”

She admits the class can seem old-fashioned, however, a few things have changed over 60 years. Food allergies are taken into account when preparing the small buffet offered at each class. And cell phones must be left behind on a nearby counter until the end of the evening.

Dressed in formal attire while seated boy-girl-boy-girl, Lydia Huntress and her fellow students await the start of their dance lessons at the Cotillion inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

In a recent class, instructor Bill Kumer and his assistants were teaching the kids how to waltz. The boys learned the proper way to lead their partners onto the dance floor, by holding their hand and guiding them to a spot. (Not too many were keen on the “holding hands” part.) There was a lot of giggling and some nervous smiles but not much eye contact between dancers. Once the music started, the sixth-graders all waltzed together in line, eventually forming a huge-rotating oval of awkward tweens. Couples constantly bumped into the couple in front of them, leading to more laughs.

Eventually, Kumer asked for a volunteer. A few hands admirably shot up, and cheering erupted when the volunteer demonstrated a few moves. One boy lost a button from his jacket, kicking off a small scavenger hunt. Another complained that his partner wouldn’t take his hand. Eventually, the group switched from the waltz to the swing.

There are no parents at Cotillion other than the few who volunteer to chaperone each month. “It’s like Las Vegas—what happens at Cotillion stays at Cotillion,” Bailey says. “Twelve and 13 is such an incredibly awkward time, especially when learning to dance with the opposite sex. To have parents standing around just stifles them.”

Mia Pasquale ( from left), Daniel Kish, Kylie Schaum, and Linc Shearon practice their steps while learning to dance formally with a partner during the Cotillion at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Enrollment costs $125, which the church puts toward its children and youth ministries, as well as some outside endeavors like helping Mt. Lebanon Public Library upgrade its teen section. Kumer, a dance pro for 20 years who owns Ballroom Central Pittsburgh Dance Studio, 300 Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, is only the third instructor in the history of the program. He adds modern relevance to the Cotillion classes when he can, playing Katy Perry and Pharrell Williams tunes for the kids to dance to. Bailey thinks the program is so popular because many of the kids’ parents participated in it when they were young.

Dance is the primary focus, but the program instructs on other aspects of polite society as well. One of the eight sessions focuses on dinner etiquette—which fork to use, where the napkin goes, etc. Parents are finally welcomed en masse at the final class, where fathers dance with their daughters and mothers with their sons.

Bailey says it’s a thrill to watch kids advance: “I just like this age group. They’re still young enough that they’re kind of silly. You can see that they’re still kids, but they’re one foot into the door of being teenagers and adolescents. And they just say the funniest things.”

Middle School students giggle with their partners while learning the unfamiliar steps to a waltz during the dance segment of the Cotillion held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

She’s not wrong. When asked if she’ll miss Cotillion when it’s over, Jefferson Middle student Lydia Huntress answers, “I’ll be sad I won’t see my friends’ expressions anymore.” For the record, Lydia’s favorite part of class is the refreshments. Her least favorite: Getting into dance positions with the boys.

Her sister Cecelia is a little more tolerant. “When I first heard about it, I was like, ‘I don’t want to dance with boys,’” she says. “Once I started to do it, it’s kind of fun I guess, but dancing with boys is something you don’t always look forward to. It’s probably the same for them.”

Following the swing, Kumar declares that the last 10 minutes of class will be devoted to a dance-off. “I am judge and jury,” he intones. As the boys and girls take to the floor for the final dance of the evening, Kumar paces the room, tapping couples on the shoulder and saying simply, “You’re out.” There is applause for the final five and then even more cheers once only one couple remains. The girl grins. The boy raises his hands in victory, showing off a little bit by dabbing toward the crowd. Everyone shakes hands goodbye and the smiles are plentiful as the kids head for the door.

Photography by John Schisler