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The Junior Cotillion of Hampton Roads is celebrating 30 years of teaching area kids in fifth through ninth grades etiquette, dancing skills and social graces.
The 30th anniversary will be acknowledged throughout the Cotillion’s upcoming Williamsburg season, which begins Jan. 9 and runs through the spring.
Patterned after the Junior Assembly in Richmond, Junior Cotillion of Hampton Roads (JCHR) was founded in 1985 by a group of mothers in the Hampton and Newport News area who were concerned about the disappearance of traditional manners and social skills from their children’s lives.
“We think it’s important to teach social dancing and etiquette instruction because it’s reinforcing what moms and dads and grandparents teach at home,” said Greg Martin, who now owns and operates JCHR with his wife, Kay Martin.
The response in the community was enthusiastic, with each cotillion season attracting between 100 and 150 participants from the organization’s earliest years.
The cotillion operated much like a social club, with involved parents taking on the roles of club officers and hiring skilled professionals to teach the lessons they could not.
One such professional was Christine Challoner, the dance instructor originally contracted to teach traditional dances like the cha cha, meringue and line dancing.
It was through Challoner that Greg and Kay Martin first became involved with the organization. Greg, a local DJ, was recommended by Challoner to provide music and equipment for the cotillion dances.
The club became a private entity in 1988, led by Challoner, Barbara Lee Sanford and Betty Marie Lanssen – two of the mothers who helped found the organization three years prior.
Shortly after the shift to a privately owned business, the owners made the decision to expand into Williamsburg.
“The owners at the time felt there was a void that needed to be filled,” Martin said. “The Junior Assembly in Richmond was quite a commute and it was quite a commute to come down to Hampton Roads, so a Williamsburg operation made sense.”
Greg Martin continued to provide his services as a subcontractor, and Kay Martin eventually came on board as cotillion assistant coordinator.
As the children of the founding mothers grew up and aged out of JCHR, the Martins took on a larger role in the organization and eventually bought full ownership of the business as the original owners retired in the late 1990s and 2000s.
Though the business expanded and changed leadership over the course of its first two decades, the services offered once the Martins took over looked much the same as when the club first started.
The fall Hampton Roads season and spring Williamsburg season each comprised six themed dances culminating with one special dance – the Holly Ball in Hampton and the Spring Ball in Williamsburg – to which parents and family members are invited to enjoy demonstrations of what the children have learned over the course of the season.
The dances, which typically take place every other Saturday for 12 weeks, are split into an early portion for the fifth- and sixth-grade participants and a later portion for the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade participants.
Cotillion attendees have the opportunity to dance in many different styles with numerous partners and are reminded to shake hands, look people in the eye and conduct themselves respectfully in conversation throughout the evening.
“It’s not like the classic middle school dance that everyone thinks of, with all the guys on one side, all the girls on the other side and no one is talking or interacting,” Martin said.
The dances are punctuated with Manners Moments, or brief lessons on etiquette that are applicable in any social setting.
The season concludes with an optional six-course luncheon where participants have the chance to learn table manners that may come in handy later in life.
“If you’re asked to attend a formal dinner, you’ll know what fork to use, how to excuse yourself from the table, stuff like that,” Martin said.
Though the basic structure of what JCHR has to offer has not changed much, the Martins have endeavored to ensure they stay with the times and meet the changing needs and interests of kids over the past three decades.
“We’ve been proactive and adjusted the organization to fit the current group of people we’re trying to reach,” Martin said.
One major change has been an increasing emphasis on addressing new technologies in the etiquette lessons. The rise of cell phones has necessitated a whole new set of etiquette rules that did not exist when the Junior Cotillion was founded in the mid 1980s.
Greg Martin has also tried to ensure that Junior Cotillion “moves with the times” by handing off responsibility for choosing the music played at each dance to a larger group of members who are more in touch with what kids want to listen to today.
“I felt a youth movement was in order. We didn’t want to be playing your grandparents’ favorite music in Cotillion,” Martin said.
Keeping things current has paid off so far, as participation has remained steady in both Hampton Roads and Williamsburg. Martin attributes the continued interest in Junior Cotillion to the enduring benefits that participants can reap from it.
“The young people that come through our program make good dates: They can dance, they know how to conduct themselves,” Martin said. “More than just the skills themselves, it also enhances youngsters self-esteem and instills confidence.”
Participants also have the opportunity to meet other kids their age from schools all over the region, which leads to new friendships that otherwise would not have existed.
Many enjoy the relationships they form in JCHR so much they stay on as cotillion assistants once they themselves age out of the program.
“We even have a couple who met as cotillion members, then they were cotillion assistants together, then they started dating in late high school or early college,” Martin said. “They are married now, and their wedding reception was cotillion-themed.”
Beyond the immediate benefits of new friendships and more social confidence, Martin also believes the manners and graces members gain in Junior Cotillion give them a long-term edge out in the business world.
“What we’re doing for the youngsters, I don’t think you can put a price tag on that,” Martin said. “When [former members] tell us what an impact we have had on their lives, it’s just really rewarding and gratifying.”
To inquire about Hampton Roads Junior Cotillion or the upcoming Williamsburg season, call Greg and Kay Martin at 757-868-3319. Click here for the 2016 Williamsburg season schedule.