Waterloo , Iowa — In a makeshift dressing room at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center, Breonna Harrington twirled in her ballgown.
Tulle skirt afloat and makeup done just so, the East High senior was a vision of confidence, beauty and poise as she and two dozen other young women prepared to walk the runway at the annual Club Les Dames Debutante Cotillion.
Established in 1960 by Olabelle Reed and Janet Norman Jackson, Club Les Dames promotes personal growth, better community relations and education among young Black women. The cotillion was established in 1987 to help propel young women of color into adulthood.
“We have evolved so much,” Reed said. “When the club first started, it was more of a social outlet. Now, it’s a scholarship program for the girls, and the cotillion is an on-ramp for the next phase of their lives.”
Good character, high academic achievement and community involvement landed each of the 25 girls, all graduating seniors, a spot on the debutante roster.
“We knew we had a good group of girls coming up,” said Charlene Montgomery, a club member and co-chair of the cotillion.
A good group, indeed. To be eligible to participate in the cotillion, girls must meet Club Les Dames’ standards, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported.
“They must be academically straight and morally sound,” Montgomery said. “Our basic purpose is for these girls to keep their heads on.”
Once a young lady has been approved to participate in the cotillion, she is paired with a club member who helps guide her through post-high school plans. Many of the girls are the first in their families to attend college. Some are the first to graduate from high school.
“We will help them apply to college and through the admissions process,” said Bernice Richard, club member and cotillion co-chair. “We talk about goal-setting and try to expose them to things we can see as grown-ups that will help them in the future.”
La’Tece Buford, an East High senior and the daughter of Jason Baskerville and Tyronza Buford, made her debut at the cotillion. She will be the first in her family to attend a four-year college. La’Tece will head to the University of Alabama in the fall where she’ll major in fashion and minor in journalism. She credits Club Les Dames with helping her plan her future.
“I just want to thank them for letting me be a part of this,” she said. “I feel honored to be a part of something so big in our community.”
This year’s cotillion saw record attendance, with nearly 600 family, friends and community members coming out to support the debutantes.
A series of workshops prior to the cotillion aims to help the girls develop self-confidence. Waterloo native Evette Creighton, diversity manager for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, presented a program she developed that empowers young women of color.
“We talked about key principles that are the foundation of discovering who they are as individuals — physical health, emotional health and intellectual health,” Creighton said. “It was a deeper dive at the challenges they face as young women of color.”
“She helped them understand all these parts and the role each plays in being who they are,” Reed said. “We want them to be brave enough and bold enough to rise above negative things.”
Debutante Accacia Hawthorne, of West High School, is the daughter of Jackie Sisk and Michael Hawthorne. She already has earned her certified nursing assistant designation and plans to attend nursing programs at Hawkeye Community College and Allen College.
“The cotillion workshops have been really helpful in deciding what I want to do,” she said.
Since 1987, 496 young ladies have debuted at the cotillion. Club Les Dames follows up with the debutantes seven years after graduation.
“Many have gone on to great things,” Montgomery said.
Liz Crowley, principal of Lou Henry Elementary School and Montgomery’s daughter, was among the first cotillion class.
“There had never been a cotillion like this in our area,” Crowley said. “For African-American young women to have an event that celebrates their accomplishments and allows the community to come together, there was a lot of excitement. That still remains.
“It lets you know the community supports you and that you have a responsibility to be a positive member of this community. You’re a debutante and you live by those high expectations for life.” —(AP)