A popular activity for middle and high school students who live in the southeastern United States is Cotillion, which covers topics such as etiquette, social dancing, and learning to interact with people in various social settings for people of all genders. I participated in Cotillion classes in middle school through a local Junior Cotillion program, and found it super helpful as a person with low vision for learning social cues and feeling more comfortable at formal events. Here are my tips for participating in Cotillion with vision loss, inclusive of low vision/blind.
Some background on my Cotillion experience
I took Cotillion classes for three years, and most programs are for students in 5th grade to 8th grade. I was already pretty comfortable with the dance aspect of Cotillion because I had taken dance classes for years in various styles including tap, jazz, and ballet, but I was not overly familiar with social dance styles or ballroom dancing. I also didn’t have a ton of experience with social events- I had never been to a wedding, fine dining place, or fundraising event prior to joining, which was the case for many of the other students in the class.
It’s worth noting that Cotillion classes are very much a gendered event, and participants are expected to adhere to a dress code including skirts/dresses for girls and a blazer and tie for men. Some Cotillion programs may have more strict dress codes than others, especially in southern states where Cotillion classes are more traditional.
Choosing an outfit for Cotillion
One of the main considerations I had for picking out an outfit for a Cotillion dance was making sure the outfit did not restrict my movement in any way or create a tripping hazard- I wanted to wear something that I wouldn’t have to spend the entire night thinking about in the back of my mind. Some strategies that helped me find comfortable outfits included wearing secondhand/hand-me-down dresses, finding gloves that didn’t have a ton of seams, and wearing comfortable flat shoes that were secure on my foot.
For ladies, the Cotillion dress code often includes:
- White gloves (may be optional in some programs)
- Knee length or longer cocktail dress/party dress in a classic silhouette- no strapless dresses
- Simple jewelry, i.e earrings, bracelet, necklace, etc
- Comfortable dress shoes for dancing- heels were optional
For gentleman, the Cotillion dress code often includes:
- Formal/dress shirt with tie- some programs may have requirements for colors/patterns
- Dress pants- a lot of my male friends mentioned wearing suit pants or golf pants
- Blazer- some programs may have requirements for colors/patterns
- Comfortable dress shoes for dancing
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Learn the layout of the space in advance
I didn’t use a blindness cane at the time I took Cotillion classes with low vision, and my normal technique of following friends around or holding onto a friend was not permitted- after all, I needed to learn how to navigate the space on my own. One of the strategies that helped me was to learn about what to expect from Cotillion in advance, and what that space would look like.
For me, my Cotillion consisted of the following different areas:
- Receiving line with chaperones, volunteers, and other staff
- Grand march/entrance onto the dance floor, escorted by a partner
- Dance lessons on a ballroom floor with partners
- Tables with light refreshments, located on raised platforms with stairs
- Bathrooms near the ballroom area (note- participants were not allowed to go by themselves)
- Good evening line when exiting
Some examples of questions that Cotillion attendees may want to ask chaperones and staff include:
- Is there a ramp/stairs-free way to get to the dance floor or refreshment area?
- What items are located at this refreshments table? If needed, ask about allergens as well
- Can you show me where something is located? This “something” could be a dance floor, coat check area, or other area
- Is this located to the left, or to the right? I’m not sure where “over there” is
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Receiving lines and introductions
Making eye contact with low vision
Cotillion involves a lot of talking- to chaperones, to teachers, to other students, and to etiquette coaches, and all will enforce students to make eye contact while speaking. One of the “hacks” my friend taught me for making eye contact was to look at someone’s shoulder or looking at another spot on their face if I found it too difficult to look at their eyes.
Developing a firm handshake is another part of Cotillion classes, and I would always reach my hand straight ahead. If the other person had their hand at an angle, they would correct it and find my hand so that I was not reaching for air. Again, this skill is practiced several times at each class.
For my Cotillion class, introductions consisted of sharing the student’s name and where they went to school, though some classes have other types of introductions. In introductions or social conversations, we were taught not to mention disabilities or similar things about ourselves, because those traits are what we have, and not who we are. However, I did learn about how to talk about disability in one of the etiquette sections and learned ways to explain how my condition affects me.
If I was at Cotillion today, I might mention to a chaperone that I have low vision when asking for directions or assistance with reading something, but would likely not mention it to other students because it isn’t relevant to the event. It’s not because I am ashamed to talk about my disability (after all, I call myself Veronica With Four Eyes on the internet), I just don’t think it’s relevant to a lot of conversations that would take place at Cotillion.
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Learning the dances
I was very fortunate that the dance instructor would describe dance steps in detail, and encourage students to practice steps in place as they were talking. In order to make it easier for me to see the instructor, I would position myself and my dance partner in an area close to the instructor and ask my partner for clarification as needed. I have a few posts linked below about how I learned various forms of dance in different settings.
Do not remove glasses
Sometimes, chaperones or other staff would ask me to remove my glasses for photos or if they thought I was at risk of breaking my glasses on the dance floor. Since I need my glasses to see, I would politely tell them that I cannot remove my glasses for safety reasons, and would say that I have very bad eyesight. No one ever asked me for information about my condition, and my mom noted on the registration form that I needed my glasses to see.
When I started wearing tinted glasses later in middle school, I remember people would often confuse them for sunglasses and ask why I was wearing sunglasses inside. In these cases, I would tell people they are not sunglasses or Transition lenses, they are tinted glasses for bright lights.
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Refreshments and dining
Cotillion classes cover fine dining etiquette and navigating multi-course meals, and all students are invited to a formal luncheon or dinner as part of the program, usually hosted at a hotel. Before I attended the luncheon for the first time, I read the American Girl book “A Smart Girl’s Guide To Manners”, which covers topics related to dining and silverware layouts, as well as other social situations- I found it helpful to learn about the silverware and plate layouts in advance. I’ve linked the book on Bookshare below, which is free for students.
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More tips on attending Cotillion with low vision
- Since ladies are often escorted by a partner and people generally move in a consistent pattern, I would feel comfortable not using my blindness cane in a lot of these settings, though I still would have brought my cane to the venue in case I needed it.
- In general, Cotillion classes and events do not have strobe or flashing lights, though some people may take photos with flash photography. If this is an issue, I recommend mentioning photophobia/photosensitivity to staff and asking that people refrain from taking flash photos when they are close by.
- Some Cotillion programs may require girls to wear some makeup, but this was not the case for mine and I have a sensory aversion to makeup anyway
- My experiences are based on attending Cotillion classes in my wonderful home state of Virginia, and Cotillion programs may vary between states and regions.