Although cotillion might evoke images of southern debutantes, long tails and short gloves, Ann Achiu is putting a modern spin on the classic, which has become big business in Northern Virginia.
“Some parents are looking for skills that will get their kids into a college or get a job. Other parents are looking to help a shy child,” said Achiu, a cotillion coach who is director of the Fairfax and Arlington Chapters of the National League of Junior Cotillions.
Achiu of Burke formerly was a stay-at-home mom. She began offering cotillion classes in 2003 at the Springfield Country Club to about 95 students. Today, about 1,000 students in grades six through 12 enroll in the program each year, with courses being offered at six area country clubs.
Achiu, who studied elocution as a youth, said she initially began offering cotillion after noticing the lack of a local program.
“When my daughter came of the cotillion age, there wasn't really a program near us and we would drive an hour [to get to one],” she said.
There is no typical cotillion student, Achiu added.
“I've had single moms who make eight tuition payments. … I have scholarships because a parent lost a job. … I have kids from multimillion dollar mansions that go to Spain for spring break and then I have kids that live in apartments. It's very diverse,” she said. “I think parents are looking for a way for their children to succeed.”
Parents said the program offers a skill set students would not learn elsewhere.
“It teaches kids some skills that the schools don't teach,” said Coreen Harney of Springfield, who signed up both her sons, ages 13 and 16, for cotillion when they were in sixth grade. “I think it gives them a leg-up. They can be in any social situation. … For me, as a parent, I think I've done a good thing in putting them in a program that teaches them good behaviors in different social situations.”
Achiu said she focuses on teaching students “skills that empower them,” adding parents often say they are looking for a way to give their child an edge when it comes to applying for college, jobs and interacting during interviews.
The cotillion three-year curriculum includes elocution; proper seating such as girls' ankles crossed; how to be a polite guest, introducing yourself; how to compliment someone sincerely; greeting people; how to make a proper toast; and dances such as the waltz, cha-cha and swing.
Achiu's son, Spencer, a Lake Braddock Secondary School junior, is the cotillion dance instructor. Her daughter, Audra Achiu, 25, also helps out with the family business, teaching etiquette.
“Girls are very much concerned about what they're wearing and the social aspect of it,” said Spencer, 17. “The boys don't want to be there. … It's not until after the first ball that they want to be there.”
While Spencer agreed cotillion helps students prepare for their future, including college admissions interviews, he said the payoff can come much earlier for students.
“It's a great activity for when they're making that transition from sixth to seventh grade. It teaches them confidence,” he said.
Classes start around September and let out just before wedding season starts in March, when area country clubs begin booking up. The fee structure for six months of classes is based on students grade levels: $325 for sixth, $350 for seventh, $360 for eighth, and $400 for high school.
Students currently are working on formal dinners and going to balls as part of their study.
“I didn't like it when I first began because I had to wear a shirt and tie and dress shoes. Also, I didn't know what to do and I had to dance with girls,” said Ian Anspaugh, a seventh-grader at Rocky Run Middle School, who started cotillion last year as a sixth-grader. “I like cotillion now because I get to dance with a lot of nice girls. That was the very thing I used to hate about cotillion. … I tell people they ought to go to cotillion. Lots of people never heard of it. I tell people cotillion is fun and you learn how to be nice and treat people with respect — even the people you don't like.”
Mason Harney, 13, an eighth-grader at Cortona Academy in Herndon, said, “It's way better than it was in sixth grade. … When you go to a party or a social gathering you're not awkward. You're more social.”
Achiu said the program is well-balanced between genders. Stories such as Ian's and Mason's are common she said.
“Sixth-grade boys, they have skid marks all the way from the parking lot to the ballroom [from where parents have had to drag them in to class]. They do not want to wear a tie. They do not want to talk to girls,” she said. “The older they get, the boys are more gung ho. But by eighth grade and high school, they all want to be there.”
Since beginning the program, Achiu said the curriculum has shifted to include etiquette on modern technology.
“I make everyone wear gloves my first class as part of glove etiquette,” she said. “It's all changed over time. I used to not teach cellphone etiquette … but things change and we have to adapt the etiquette.”
Along with cellphone etiquette, Achiu teaches the students about Facebook, Twitter and the drawbacks of posting too much personal information.
“You're not texting during dinner. You're not having a private conversation in a public place,” she advises. “Make whoever you're with your first priority.”
Audra Achiu said, “It's not just limiting what you post on Facebook or Twitter, but making sure you don't have connections to things that might put you in a bad light — especially to colleges.”
She added that a trend she has seen with today's youth is they struggle to communicate with those outside of their age group. Cotillion, she said, helps bridge that gap.
“I think students are getting away from knowing how to speak with adults because of social media,” Audra said. “The key thing they take away is a renewed sense of self-confidence and a feeling that they can survive in any social situation.”
Kara Smith of Fairfax Station, whose seventh-grade daughter, Peyton, attends cotillion, said, “Unfortunately, in this day and age, manners seem to be a lost art. The digital age has changed so many things about the way we communicate with each other and I wanted my children to understand that manners are really nothing more than kindness and consideration for others. Cotillion reinforces all of the things we try and teach our children at home, and that is definitely an advantage.”
The goal of cotillion, Achiu said, is to make for more well-rounded teens.
“You can still rap and have good manners. They are normal kids, but they just have good manners,” she said. “A lot of the parents say they don't feel it's a luxury thing. They say it's a necessity.”
Learn more about the National League of Junior Cotillions and Anna Achiu at NLJC.com or by calling the cotillion at 703-569-6721.