Local cotillion and etiquette programs teach everything from social graces to dancing and polite phone usage.
By Cassandra Reinhart
In a day and age when dinner conversation has become texting under the table, and dinner itself often means noshing on a microwaved meal while catching up on Netflix shows or practically inhaling drive-thru fast food between soccer games, manners seem to be the last thing on the menu. Eye-to-eye contact and conversation is becoming as rare as the flip phone, leaving children—and adults—out of practice when it comes to in-person social interaction.
Many parents feel that social graces are being replaced by online social networks, making proper personal interactions awkward and inauthentic. Although there is probably an app you could download for teaching etiquette, many parents are turning to good old-fashioned etiquette courses that are anything but. If you want your child to trade their texting thumbs for a white-gloved waltz, you don’t have to look far. Etiquette, proper manners and tradition are alive and well in Newport Beach.
“We are anti-technology at the table, at home or in a restaurant,” says Carlyn Rutherford, who has enrolled her 9-year-old daughter in both cotillion and etiquette programs in Newport Beach. “Socializing with people is not being on your cell phone with your head down. It’s about social interaction, and this is the age they have to learn that to be great adults.”
The Martine Cotillions, Addington Cotillion and Bay Cotillion are Newport Beach-area programs structured to teach manners, social graces and even ballroom dancing to young children through what can be yearslong courses. If you want less dancing and more focus on table manners and the like for formal settings, then dining etiquette courses—such as the ones offered at The Resort at Pelican Hill—teach children elegant meal skills; the resort offers a wedding etiquette course for adults, too.
Cotillion programs teach self-confidence through practiced social interactions, where children and teens are taught to treat others with thoughtfulness and respect. The Martine Cotillions—held locally at the historic Balboa Pavilion, Newport Harbor Yacht Club and Fashion Island Hotel—have been carried on through five generations of the Martine family since 1857, and focus on empowerment through good manners, teaching not only when to use proper manners but why. Coursework for third- through eighth-graders includes introductions, attitude and making a great first impression. These are skills that carry into adulthood.
“Some are more focused on protocol, [but] our cotillion is focused on practical experience,” says Gena Martine Santoni, fifth-generation owner and co-director of the Martine Cotillion. “Certainly they learn the protocol and the manners [and] dining skills, but what we want them to do is have them develop an awareness of how they are affecting people around them.”
Cotillion courses on internet and cellphone “netiquette” is not something that was taught even 10 years ago, but is timely for today’s tech-obsessed generation. The course teaches the impression of disinterest left upon others when your attention is constantly focused on your device or taking “selfies.”
“Children are now having trouble noticing social cues like body language, facial expressions and intonation because their attention is so focused on electronic devices,” Martine Santoni says. “They don’t have as much practice for cues … [in] social interactions.”
One way to develop their social skills is through dance programs, which are a staple of cotillions. At Supper Club, a two-year program offered by the Martine Cotillions, students are tasked with an evening of dining and dancing, putting their previously learned fox trot, waltz and swing skills to the test.
Organizers of the Addington Cotillion at Balboa Bay Club believe that good manners form the foundation for cultivating meaningful relationships. Addington Cotillion is for children ages 8-12 (although exceptions can sometimes be made for younger kids) and meets six times a year for an hour and 15 minutes per session. Tying ties, maintaining posture and good grooming, and making introductions are each devoted sessions. During each course, students also receive dance instruction. Then, at a costume dance party that concludes the course, they bring together everything they’ve learned. Lisa Lisherness’ 7-year-old daughter, Lola, went through the cotillion program at the Balboa Bay Club.
“She gets dressed … [and gets] to wear little white gloves, and she thinks it is so cool that the boys treat the girls like little princesses,” Lisherness says. “Cotillion does more of the dancing and the social interaction with boys.”
Like many cotillion programs, admittance at the Bay Cotillion is by invitation only, and selected students in fifth through eighth grades are taught etiquette and ballroom dance in a multiyear course at the Balboa’s Grand Ballroom on the Balboa Peninsula. The season includes six dance parties, which put the focus on manners, social graces and more. Parents are invited to the last dance of the season to observe their students putting what they have learned to use.
Rutherford says the social takeaways were the most memorable for her daughter. “She enjoyed the dancing and punch and cookies,” Rutherford says. “She did really enjoy dressing up and feeling really pretty.”
Most all cotillion programs involve a strict dress code: Young ladies wear knee-length party dresses with white gloves and closed-toe shoes. Boys wear dark suits or blazers with dress pants, a white shirt and tie with dress shoes. For formal events, girls wear floor-length party dresses, and boys are in dark suits or tuxedos with bow ties.
“Rather than it being a course, it is a simulated party where they are practicing the skills rather than just learning about them,” Martine Santoni says. “We teach them about conversation, and then they practice it.”
“It was fantastic, and I learned a lot,” adds participant Lola Lisherness, an elementary school student who has experienced both cotillion and etiquette programs. Her favorite part about cotillion? “Learning the fox trot and some other dances,” she says.
In addition to local cotillions, The Resort at Pelican Hill offers classes through the Etiquette School for children as well as a pre-wedding etiquette course for couples. Kathleen Cover, president of the Etiquette School with branches both in Newport Beach and Beverly Hills, says the children’s courses focus more on dining and formal social situations, minus the ballroom dancing and white gloves.
“With dining being such a major part of our personal and professional lives, all of our programs include delicious food and beverage[s], so individuals can actually experience how to easily maneuver through a fine dining event,” Cover says. “Our programs are fast paced to keep their attention and presented in a party-like atmosphere. The children are greeted with butler-passed hors d’oeuvres and sparkling cider in fancy glasses.”
Pelican Hill’s social, fine dining and travel etiquette programs for children ages 7-12 help this younger set embrace the lessons and understand the importance of extending courtesies to others, Cover says. The courses are shorter than cotillion programs: Each is only three hours and, at the end of the course, parents get to watch what their children practice what they’ve learned.
“He was apprehensive with the unknown,” says Robert Rosenberg, who enrolled his 10-year-old son, Skylar, in the etiquette course at Pelican Hill. “When he completed the class, he had a good takeaway which has helped in formal dinner meetings with myself and my wife or some business colleagues.”
Both children and adults are constantly observing how we treat others and dine at the dinner table. Being well-versed in etiquette allows an individual to naturally present themselves well, and develop and strengthen relationships.
“Enrolling your child in an etiquette program makes a statement to the world [that] they are trying to be the very best they can be,” Cover says.
And children aren’t the only ones who need a schooling or refresher on social graces. Cover also offers programs for adults including wedding, social and fine dining etiquette. She says it can help a nervous bride and groom avoid social blunders on their wedding day.
“As in life,” Cover says, “when we know what is expected of us and how to do something, we naturally relax and focus on the moment.”
5 Tips for Good ‘Netiquette’
Kathleen Cover, president of the Etiquette School, offers these tips for cellphone usage.
- Respect the rules of an establishment when signage indicates the use of cellphones is prohibited or you are asked to turn your phone off.
- Power off your phone or put it on silent while you are in a house of worship, theater, library, restaurant or any location where the noise of your phone may disturb others.
- Adjust the volume of your ringer to suit the environment.
- No smartphones or electronic devices at the dinner table, please. Speak with one another instead.
- Personal matters should be discussed in a private setting. Don’t make the people around you uncomfortable by discussing intimate issues.
Courses in Comportment
The Resort at Pelican Hill offers spring and fall classes in etiquette for children. Upcoming dates include April 29 and June 24, as well as a May 20 wedding etiquette course for adults.