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RSVP : On a Special Evening, Tradition Waltzes In

November 27, 1995|HILLARY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For 59 years, society mavens in the African American community have been planning very sleepy Thanksgivings after waltzing till dawn the night before the holiday at the annual Black and White Ball thrown by Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

"We make everything for Thanksgiving the day before so we can sleep in after the ball," said Barbara Boudreaux, a Los Angeles Unified School District board member. She first attended the ball as a 16-year-old debutante and now comes with her husband, Albert. The two were high school sweethearts.

"When I was a kid I couldn't wait to grow up so I could go the Black and White Ball," Barbara Boudreaux said. "My granddaughter is 14, so she'll be going next year, and she's already talking about her dress."

The invitation-only formal dance was held Wednesday at the Westin Bonaventure ballroom. Some couples waltzed on the dance floor while others chatted by candlelight as the social season officially began.

The ball is "steeped in tradition," said Theodore Alexander Jr., a Kappa chapter "polemarch" (president) and assistant superintendent of integration for LAUSD. "All of the women are wearing white dresses, and the men must wear tuxedos. We have these balls throughout the country, but this one in Los Angeles is the granddaddy of them all."

The dress code was indeed strictly enforced; in the crowd of 1,300, there was not a single red cummerbund or blue ribbon, and the visual effect was marvelous.

"It's one of the few invitational events left in any community," Alexander said. "Most society events now are paid. We thought about charging and giving the money to various organizations, but we always decide no, we're going to keep with the tradition, keep it invitational, and stick with our dress code."

Of the Kappas' choice to retain elegance and formality, he observed, "When I was a kid you'd go out to a restaurant and everyone looked nice. Now you go out and everyone looks like they're going to the park."

The formal tradition is in keeping with the fraternity's intentions when it started the ball in 1936 to give the city's African American community a truly social and celebratory event. Originally the dance began at midnight, with breakfast served in the wee hours, as was done at the grand balls of past centuries. In recent years, however, the Black and White has begun at 9, with breakfast served at the modest hour of 1 a.m. for the 200 or so guests who remain.

"It's a ball. Pomp and pageantry," said Kevin Kinsey, Western Province polemarch. "People say, 'What is a ball?' Well, you have to know how to waltz. The first official waltz will be after the 'kourt' is presented." A queen and princesses are named each year, after which the Kappa men serenade the women with the "Kappa Sweetheart Song."

This year, the dance music was provided by Cap and the Juggernauts, who play swing, another Black and White tradition. Past bands have included those of Les Brown, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Kappa Alpha Psi, founded in 1911, is the largest black-founded college fraternity in the nation, with 17,000 active members and a total membership of 78,000. Alumni include former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Ronald Banks and retired Superior Court Judge Bernard Jefferson. Many of the families in attendance at the ball included three generations of Kappas.

Guests attending the ball for the first time marveled at the sense of community. "Price Is Right" star Kathy Bradley came with her husband, Kappa alumnus Terrence Redd. "This is our first Black and White," she said. "We went to his [Dorsey High School] class reunion and had such a great time that we wanted to be a part of this."

The queen and princesses are selected through a rigorous interview process. "Being the queen is a really large honor," said outgoing 1994-'95 monarch Angelina Arrington, a recent USC graduate. "There are thousands of brothers who give you the utmost respect." She mentioned a past queen, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, as a role model.

In a ceremony that began promptly at 11:30 p.m., the outgoing kourt was introduced, followed by the new kourt. This year's queen, Natasha Tina Harris, is president of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at USC.

As Harris took her coronation walk around the dance floor to the tune of "Sophisticated Lady" and "My Funny Valentine," tradition seemed a very sweet thing.

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