I took cotillion classes back in middle school through a local organization, and was recently reflecting on this experience with a few friends. They were telling me about how much they loved attending the dances and how the events helped them a lot with social skills, especially for interacting with the opposite sex. From this conversation, I was encouraged to share my thoughts on the topic, so here are my experiences and tips for taking cotillion classes with vision impairments, including low vision and blindness.
What is cotillion?
Cotillion classes focus on learning manners, etiquette, ballroom dancing, and how to act at formal events such as dances and weddings. They are targeted at middle school students, with advanced classes available for high school students. The classes are for all genders and are most commonly taught in southern states, though can be found all over the country.
How can people with low vision benefit?
Students with low vision can benefit a lot from cotillion, as it is an opportunity to interact with a variety of people. It also is a great way to practice social skills and making conversation. Plus, students can practice answering questions about their disability in a polite way. I have used the skills I learned from cotillion in a variety of social settings, especially the dancing and making introductions parts.
Choosing an outfit
Make sure that whatever outfit is chosen is easy to move around in, and that it meets the dress code as well. Check to make sure that the outfit allows for unrestricted arm and leg movement, and that fabric can’t get caught on something- for example, I frequently find myself tripping over long dresses, so I avoid those whenever possible. Ladies wear a knee-length or longer dress with a conservative silhouette, dress shoes, classic jewelry, and optional white gloves. Gentlemen often are requested to wear dress pants, dress shoes, and a tie, with an optional blazer.
Practice navigating without help
When navigating an unfamiliar area, I often grab onto friends or just stay in one area without moving. This did not work out for me at cotillion at all, and I was encouraged to learn the layout of the dance floor, location of tables, and how to navigate stairs without looking down at the ground. I didn’t use a blindness cane back then, though students who use canes may be encouraged to practice navigating without it on the dance floor, though they will still be allowed to use the cane in other locations.
Learn a proper introduction
In cotillion, you have the opportunity to talk to dozens of people in one night. All of them will encourage you to make eye contact when speaking. Low vision is not an excuse here. Practice looking people in the eye, or at least the general direction of their eyes. Staff can help with this if it is difficult.
A firm handshake is very important, and teachers will encourage you to develop one. I would always reach straight forward when going to shake someone’s hand. I found that if their hand was at an angle, they would move it so I wasn’t grabbing thin air.
I was taught to say my full name and where I went to school. Some classes may have students do alternative introductions, but that was what my class had us do. We were taught not to mention disabilities or similar things about ourselves, because those traits are what we have, and not who we are.
Learning the dances
When learning new dances, I would listen as much as possible to how the instructor described the dance steps. I would practice doing the steps with my feet as the instructor spoke. I also would try to stand as close as possible to the people demonstrating the steps. Sometimes, I would pull aside a staff member and ask them to show me the dance again, which they were more than happy to do.
Keep your glasses on
Sometimes, I would have people encourage me to remove my glasses so that my eyes would look better in photos or so I didn’t have to worry about breaking them. I learned to respond to this by explaining I am visually impaired and need my glasses to see, and my mom would also write this on the registration form. I didn’t go into details about my condition, and I didn’t need to either.
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Memorize the layout of silverware in advance
At the end of cotillion, students had the opportunity to attend a fancy luncheon to learn proper dining etiquette. Before this, my mom made sure to go over the layout of the silverware with me. That way I would know what to pick up, and I didn’t have to worry about knocking my water glass into my lap or picking up items at the wrong time.
Alert staff if there is an issue
One night, I was constantly running into a pillar that was slightly outside my peripheral vision. A staff member came over and asked me what was wrong. I was reluctant to admit my predicament at first, but the staff member was very understanding and then helped me find an alternative way to get to where I needed to go. So when in doubt, ask for help.
Cotillion is a wonderful opportunity for people to learn how to act polite and respectful, with a dash of southern charm. It’s a great way to practice talking, dancing, and etiquette too. All of my friends who have taken cotillion enjoyed the experience, and many attended it for several years. I highly recommend attending cotillion for at least one year, as these skills will be useful later in life.
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