Wayzata Cotillion Returns for its 19th Season

The 19-year-old cotillion program teaches local children etiquette and manners.
The Wayzata chapter of Jon D Williams Cotillions utilizes ballroom dancing as part of its etiquette training.

Each spring from April to May, students from local school districts gather at the Wayzata Country Club on Sunday afternoons and evenings to take etiquette classes through Wayzata’s cotillion program.  Now in its 19th season, the program annually instructs more than 300 children and teenagers from fourth through 12th grade on the importance of courtesy and respect. At the elementary level, lessons include basics such as handshaking and eye contact, while the older students in the Survival Etiquette Essentials program learn college and job interview skills. But this is not your typical social graces and manners class. Cotillion is unique that a portion of each session is dedicated to dancing—from the tango and foxtrot to swing dancing. “It’s a situation where you have close contact with other people,” says Liz Jacobsen, Wayzata co-chair with Tricia Davis. “There’s a lot of teamwork and cooperation involved with a dance partner, but also there’s a lot of verbal and nonverbal communication.” The dance aspect of cotillion is what first attracted Wayzata cotillion director Britta Murphy to the program. “I love dancing,” she says. “Dance breaks down those physical barriers and those inhibitions between the boys and the girls, and it helps them develop a respect for one another.” Long before becoming an instructor, Murphy, born in Plymouth but now a resident of Denver, Colorado, was a student in the Wayzata program. In high school, she took over as a student assistant, a title that she held through college. “I truly enjoyed working with the students, teaching them how to be better people and teaching them wonderful, important skills that a lot of them don’t get in school. A lot of children need this education, and if they’re not getting it at school, they need to get it somewhere else.”  Upon graduation from the University of Minnesota last May, Murphy was offered a full-time position with Wayzata Cotillion’s national parent company, Jon D. Williams Cotillions, based in Denver. “Britta is probably one of the best student assistants we’ve had—if not the best,” Jacobsen says. “She was confident, bright, personable, engaging, very enthusiastic and positive. But I think what set Britta aside was what a self-starter she was.” Jon D. Williams Cotillions hosts more than 50 programs across the United States.  Founded in 1949 by Jon and Vivian Williams, who worked with Fred Astaire, it is one of the largest cotillion companies in the country, and the only program in Minnesota.  Although the national cotillion program has been around for more than 60 years, it has been adapted to attract children and teenagers of this generation, even including lessons on cell phone and email etiquette. And although some students are quick to admit that their parents originally signed them up for the program, they acknowledge the importance of etiquette and continue to come back, year after year.  “It’s a really fun way to meet new people,” says Orono High School sophomore Annika Sherek. “It’s kind of scary at first, but after you go to the first class, you just want to keep going.” “I really enjoy teaching the younger kids,” adds Callaghan Commers, a junior at Benilde-St. Margaret’s. “I remember when I was their age and had no idea what I was doing. The student instructors would teach me what to do. Now it’s cool, because I’m the student instructor and I’m the one teaching the kids.” On top of being a social activity, the program prepares its students to tackle any situation; their watchwords: “How you act is not only a reflection of your character; it is also a demonstration of your education.” “I believe so much in this,” Jacobsen says. “It’s just amazing when kids can walk up and look someone in the eye, shake their hand, carry on a conversation and be respectful. That, of course, is the main goal of cotillion.” & For more information, visit cotillion.com.