Inside the bare auditorium of the Beverly Hills Woman's Club, 15 ten- and 11-year-old girls sat on one side of the room, nine boys faced them on the other. The girls wore white gloves and frilly party dresses with black patent leather shoes and white ankle socks. The boys wore somber suits or navy blazers with slacks, button-down shirts and ties.
When they paired off into the basic ballroom dance position, their young faces frowned in concentration as they focused on the way their feet moved. Step, together, step, together. On the portable record-player, the metronome music for this oasis of decorum blared the hard-driving beat of Michael Jackson's disco hit "Bad."
Welcome to Cotillion 1987, as old-fashioned as the horse and buggy despite its upbeat sound. Where boys and girls learn how to dance the fox trot and the waltz, how to introduce themselves, how to make small talk with the opposite sex, how to keep their elbows off the table. Even with the peaceful coexistence of white gloves and MTV, Cotillion continues to be the way the privileged learn proper social behavior.
Friday was the first day of the new fall semester for the Beverly Hills Cotillion, where three classes of fourth- and fifth-graders, seventh-graders and eighth-through-12th-graders meet for an hour and 15 minutes once a week for 10 sessions.
Cassidy Hoban surveyed the scene and thought about why he was here for another year. "To learn how to dance," he said, tugging at his crimson bow tie. "Some of the people who come here are nice. We have a snack and serve drinks. And now I know how to dance . . . in case."
"They learn how to be hosts and hostesses, really," says Gloria Monaghan, who has been teaching this since 1963 when she took over her employer's Beverly Hills dance studio. Its popularity has ebbed and flowed with the times, but Monaghan insists that the key to her program's survival has been the music.
"During the rock 'n' roll age, a lot of cotillions wouldn't teach the dance steps. I did teach it. You have to go along with the latest dance steps and the latest music."
Monaghan teaches several cotillions around the area, including Westchester, Brentwood and the Santa Clarita Valley. The Beverly Hills Cotillion meets once a week at the Woman's Club, a meeting hall a few blocks away from the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Most of the students are from private schools in the area like Harvard, Marymount and Westlake. Some are brought by parents who themselves went through Cotillion when they were young. The Cotillion master is Victor Rogers, a tall, distinguished British actor who still refuses to take acting jobs on Friday evenings. He and Monaghan have been working together for years. "We get on like a house on fire," says Rogers. Of the class he says, "It's my baby. I'd never, ever leave this Cotillion."
They teach with a firm hand but an easy manner. "You have to make them feel at ease," says Rogers. "And you never tell them a lie. Because they know. And if I tell them to stop something or they're out, they understand."
Rogers instructs the girls in the proper way to sit: legs crossed at the ankle, hands folded neatly on the lap. Two mothers, watching from the sidelines, immediately follow suit.
The boys are directed to walk over to the girls and escort them to the dance floor, taking their left hand and hooking it over their right arm. Then comes a march around the room and finally, when the children have formed a big circle, the basic dance positions.
It is here that the height difference becomes apparent, a difference that doesn't really even out until the last class of seventh- and eighth-graders takes the floor. But no one seems to mind that a girl is a good head taller than a boy. Because there are more girls than boys, some boys dance with two girls at once, or change partners often to accommodate all.
"Girls, you never refuse to dance," Monaghan says.
They learn the basics of the swing step to more of Jackson's "Bad" album, some picking it up quickly, others struggling.
"It's unbelievable that things like this are going on today," said Batia Pinhas, who surveyed the Norman Rockwellian tableau. She watched as her 9-year-old daughter Jaclyn was learning how to cut in on a dance. "This is just adorable," she said, shaking her head at the cuteness of it all. "I wanted her to learn how to dance and get together with different children. She's a little shy."
"I knew about this type of organization because I did this when I was young," said Kathy Tardy, who brought her 10-year-old daughter Marilyn. "It allows a child an opportunity to dress up, to learn manners. Some people have very negative reactions to it, that it's not a part of the modern-day world, that it's elitist. But I think it's good for them."
At refreshment time the children walked arm-in-arm to another room where folding tables were set up. The boys held chairs for the girls, then went to the front table to get red punch in Styrofoam cups.