By Preston Knight - email@example.com
WOODSTOCK - With a brotherly love that can only be rivaled by a few others, Caleb Halbersma, dressed handsomely in a suit, escorts his equally fashionable little sister to her seat and then later dances with her in the living room of their Stephens City house.
It was a staged series of events to capture what Caleb, 13, and his younger sister, Anna, 11, do as part of their respective Winchester cotillion clubs -- he's in the seventh-grade one, while she takes part in the one for sixth-grade students. But the actions Caleb, and Anna, displayed were genuine despite the fake circumstances because, thanks to the cotillions as well as their parents, they have been well trained in how to act in all sorts of life situations.
The clubs, the National League of Junior Cotillions' Blue Ridge Chapter, meet once a month, October through March, to teach ballroom dance and etiquette. The league recently announced it is seeking people interested in starting and directing a chapter in Shenandoah County.
"One thing that amazes me with young kids is when you walk past and they don't care to acknowledge that you exist. You are no different than a chair to them," said Ross Halbersma, a pastor at New Hope Alliance Church in Winchester and Caleb and Anna's father. "The cotillion says when you walk into a room ... you take the opportunity to be engaging."
If someone can be hired and put through training at the national headquarters in Charlotte soon enough, the chapter could be operating in the county at the beginning of the next school year, media relations director Debra Roberts said. Fort Valley resident Lee Santos, a national champion dancer and long-time instructor, trains cotillion directors in ballroom dancing.
Young people in grades six through eight -- in private or public schools -- would be eligible to participate, at a cost of $250 a year, Roberts said. After a year, it's up to the discretion of the director if he or she wants to expand the program to high schools, the corporate world or elsewhere, she said.
Robyn Schroth, who directs the Winchester cotillions and teaches dance part-time at Shenandoah University, has maintained her clubs for sixth- and seventh-graders. Advertising is forbidden, she said, and children must be invited into the program.
Schroth does not require her boys to wear a tuxedo, as some cotillion chapters do, but a coat and tie are necessary. Girls wear dresses.
"People like it. All the parents say: 'When are you going to do one for adults? Can I bring my husband?'" she said. "The main thing I try to instill in them is the value of first impressions, and with first impressions come lasting memories."
The lessons to be learned on etiquette entail just about anything imaginable -- making eye contact when talking to someone, telephone courtesy, setting the dinner table, posture, interacting with the opposite sex, firmly shaking hands, writing thank-you notes and more. Anna said she has learned that, when she sits, proper etiquette is to not cross her legs at the knees, but at the ankles.
Also, portion control during meals is important, she said, as evidenced by the one time an assistant gave a boy in her club "the eye" for taking four cookies.
The dancing aspect includes learning how to waltz, swing and do the fox-trot. Club members dance with multiple partners each meeting, and since girls often outnumber boys in Winchester, high school volunteers who have been through the program get in on the action.
Anna prefers an experienced partner, especially if it means she is not fitted with a boy who has little interest because his parents made him come.
"When I get a boy like that ..." Anna said, shaking her head to signify her displeasure.
The cotillions may not appear to be the ideal setting for boys, Caleb said, which may explain why he is a little more understated about his enthusiasm for the club. If the cotillions are brought up at his school, Admiral Byrd Middle School, he said nine of 10 people don't know what it is, and he does not bother trying to fill them in.
"It's a lot of explaining," Caleb said.
But he can recite the club's advantages when prompted. Take, for example, the requirement that boys must take girls' trash after refreshments are served during meetings. Competition can ensue among boys, Caleb said, as they try to collect as much trash as possible, theoretically meaning they have made progress with more ladies.
"I got more trash than you," he said.
The best part, though, comes right before the trash, Caleb said.
"From the guy's point of view -- the refreshments," he said.
Before Caleb and Anna, Halbersma and his wife, Patti, put two older daughters through the cotillion program -- Kahri, now 18, and Julia, 15. Mrs. Halbersma said she saw her cotillion dollars at work when Julia was in a spelling bee and received her prize from a school official who was much taller than her. Unlike other children who would stare at the man's tie, Julia looked up, right into the official's eyes.
If some people think the cotillions might be for the "upper crust," Halbersma said his family is far from that, and that perception would be incorrect.
"We're buying the opportunity for them to interact with their peers," he said. "It helps them see that with other children, [proper etiquette] is normal. ... Our culture does not value the refined values. It's a lost art."
For more information on applying or nominating someone to direct the Shenandoah County chapter, call 1-800-633-7947, or visit www.nljc.com.