originally published January 27, 2013
In my chilly little quadrant of the world, one’s rite of passage when turning 18 is usually to get drunk for the first time. Well, ‘legally’ for the first time. Alberta is one of only three provinces to allow 18-year-olds to guzzle tequila like it’s Sunny D. But for a lot of teens in families more prestigious and important than mine (though in all fairness, we did invent a remote control that changes channels when you sing Spandau Ballet’s “True” at it), one’s late teens means something more. It means a Coming Out party.
No, not that kind of Coming Out party. This is a party wherein debutantes – teenage girls aged 16 or so – are introduced to society as ready to enter the world of courtship. I know, it sounds strange. And in parts of the world where there isn’t a lot of ‘old money’, most folks know little (and care even less) about these events.
My wife, who grew up in the center of the Canadian universe (also known as the ‘centre’ of the Canadian universe, also known as the Toronto area), actually “debuted” at one of these things. This launched her on the traditional upper-crust trajectory that landed her married to a guy who writes diligently and proudly for no money. I asked her a few quick questions, and from what I can gather (or rigorously distort), this is how a debutante ball goes down.
First you need a venue. Some debutante balls exist to introduce a single young lady to the rest of the upper class. My wife’s affair featured about fifteen teens being announced one by one before descending the magical staircase into adulthood (bannister-sliding was discouraged). In Australia, high schools put on the events, but you don’t see a lot of high schools with grand staircases in their gymnasium, so you’d lose that effect.
A hotel ballroom would probably work, though if you were on a budget, why not a community hall? Why not rent out the PlayPlace at your local McDonald’s and announce each debutante as they descend a twirly slide? I’m telling you, these things sound too stiff and traditional. I think they could be jazzed up a little.
English tradition had each debutante presented to the Queen at court, after which they were free to attend all events of the social season, such as polo matches, tea parties, Royal balls, and the annual Duchess of West Kensingtonshire Monster Truck Rally. In 1958 Queen Elizabeth decided she’d had enough of nodding at teenage girls who’d rather be listening to Elvis and growing Sea Monkeys, so she abolished the tradition. Coming Out parties are still held in England, but now they’re just another snooty event on high society’s busy calendar.
Okay, you’ve picked out a place, replaced the batteries and checked the LED bulbs in your fancy light-up gowns, now you’re ready to get the action going. Debutante balls are often charity events, so the family or families of the newly-christened young ladies have to cough up some dough to a worthy cause. No doubt this stirs up a bit of competition behind the scenes, as scandal is sure to follow the aristocratic family who donated the least, or to the most unworthy cause.
After a short cocktail hour in which society moms fondly recall their own Coming Out parties, and society dads down as much single-malt scotch as they can to block out the tediousness of the event, the young ladies line up behind a concealing curtain at the top of the stairs. The young men (known in the UK as ‘deb’s delights’ – I shit you not) line up at the bottom of the staircase to watch the event. The ladies are called one by one, and they walk slowly into the weirdness below, while everyone in the room applauds as though congratulating her for having lived to 16, or possibly for navigating the stairs in high heels without an unfortunate incident.
Meanwhile, the boys are probably muttering to one another some variation on whether or not they’d “do” the debutante who has just been introduced. Some of the creepy uncles in the room may be having the same conversation.
The girls then perform an old-fashioned choreographed dance number. No, really. I tried to get my wife to explain this part, but it didn’t make sense. The closest thing I can relate it to is that weird scene in Top Secret where Val Kilmer and Lucy Gutteridge are doing that formal dance with the cheek poking and the bizarre hand gestures.
Afterwards, the families sit down for a formal meal served by underlings. Then the party turns into a dance. It’s a black-tie ball atmosphere for an event like this, but I can’t imagine a group of teenage boys and girls – old-money society or not – dancing waltzes and such to a string quartet all night. I’m sure the DJ gets a little jiggy once the formalities have unfolded.
Ukrainian organizations in the US who put on their own debutante balls often stop the action at midnight, kicking off something called the Kolomyjka. That’s a half hour of nonstop Ukrainian folk dancing (dance moves like the Hopak or the Arkan, if you’re up on stuff like that), in which every guest gets to strut their kicks and leaps. Even on the upper end of the income spectrum, those Ukrainians know how to party.
Some old-money families in the deep south will send their young debs-to-be to dancing and etiquette classes known as cotillion. In my wife’s world this was called ‘finishing school’. This is where young ladies learn which of the 14 spoons beside their plate they are supposed to use to smack the back of their servants’ hands when their quail eggs are too runny, and that boys who roll up their napkin and stick it in their zipper to show off their impressive ‘napkin-penis’ are not the boys they should be dating once they’ve been introduced as debutantes.
I don’t know, the whole tradition seems strange to me. As of my writing this, my daughter is exactly four months away from turning 16. I can’t imagine introducing her to the world as eligible to date. Maybe they should allow the father to walk down the stairs behind the girl, holding his weapon of choice for ‘correcting’ boys who aim to take advantage of the young debutantes.
Now that would be a show.