Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

My ancient grudge against the Lyon Village Community House resurfaces whenever I drive by it.

True, I’ve enjoyed some private parties over the years in that quaint facility off Lee Highway. But it will forever be linked to the agonizing hours I spent there as a bewildered preteen attending Cotillion.

In the early 1960s, the baby-boomers’ generation gap was just unfolding. So I was none too pleased that my mom joined with dozens of Arlington parents and insisted we give over a series of Saturdays to this ballroom dancing dress-up class. It meant missing a youth basketball game and letting down some teammates who were most un-wowed by Cotillion.

Five decades of character improvements later, I’m still in touch with friends with the same bittersweet memories of those afternoons learning to act like stuffed shirts. We were being groomed for a world of debut parties that for most of us never materialized.

I remember being dropped off at Lyon Village in an ill-fitting suit and clip-on bowtie, avoiding the gaze of girls in their lace finery and patent leather shoes. Inside, instructors Josh Cockey and Joe Courtney called out dance steps and tips on how to fetch a young lady a glass of oversweet punch. These guys were backed by a middle-aged combo with a piano, clarinet and stand-up bass performing – just as the Beatles were hitting – “Tea for Two,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Heart and Soul.”

The adults’ assumption was that the box step and foxtrot would serve us in later life. They couldn’t have guessed that the free-form flail-dancing inspired by rock and roll would require no such formalism.

Eileen Powell, an Alexandria landscaper who was my Cotillion classmate, recalls those gents in the band “as incredibly old, but they were probably about 40.” Her strongest memories are of “preparing to go, with lots of giggling and excitement” among friends, as well as “buying new clothes and wearing stockings for the first time,” even suffering through a shopping trip to Hecht’s with her father.

The girls wore white gloves, Powell says, which made it hard to hold drinks. Mysteriously, the girls were taught “not to cross the center of dance floor but to walk around the side, perhaps not to attract attention,” she speculates. “Once a session, girls had to ask boys to dance, and I would agonize over whether to ask a boy I actually liked, thereby broadcasting it to everyone, or one who didn’t count.” Basically, she attended because “my mother was preparing me the kind of social life she thought I should have.”

Arlington mom Audrey Courtney, whose late husband ran Cotillion for 30 years, recently enlightened me on its history going back to when the community house opened in 1949. Joe was asked to broaden the variety of dance steps, and to intervene when boys hid in the restrooms. “He kept the kids interested,” she says. “Beyond dance, there were basic good manners – if you danced with someone, you excused yourself when you left for new partner.”

Eventually Cotillion switched to recorded music and the dress code softened, she recalls, and kids came in “sport jackets and jazzy stuff.” She confirmed that boys definitely didn’t enjoy it as much as the girls. “But it was the center of our life, and the community house was such an important thing.”