By McKenna Horsley

Lilia Smithson has been in Frankfort’s Junior Cotillion for about three years. She joined when she was in sixth grade after an older friend urged her to do so.

The experience has come with some awkward moments — her hair once got caught in a dance partner’s button while they were doing the Pretzel — but she’s truly enjoyed her time in cotillion, a program for middle school students that teaches them traditional dances, social skills and etiquette and how to apply that to the world around them.

“I’m really upset that it is my last time,” Smithson said.

Smithson was glad to end cotillion on a high note, as she is in eighth grade this year. At the final dance, Smithson was a hostess for the night and was voted “Best Dancer” by her peers. She also got to dance with her father and was able to show off all that she has learned at cotillion. She said that she feels “very fortunate” to have the experience.

“If I had to rank it on a scale from one to 10, it was a 20,” Smithson said.

Gina Tate has been the owner and director of Frankfort Junior Cotillion for about 20 years. Junior Cotillion has been around for 45 years. Tate said a group of local women organized the first cotillion in 1974. She added that cotillion was initially invitation-only and was on a smaller scale compared to what the program is today. Initially, the event was about ballroom dancing and learning manners in a very structured environment. Tate said while those elements are still apparent in the modern Junior Cotillion, the goal of the program has become more meaningful than that.

“Now cotillion’s mission is respect, kindness and acceptance,” Tate said.

Frankfort’s Junior Cotillion is one of the oldest and biggest cotillions in the area, Tate said. The program accepts any child and is as inclusive as possible. The fee for the five-week program is $100.

“Everyone in the community needs to have manners and kindness and respect,” Tate said.

Throughout February and March, over 200 cotillion participants meet each Saturday in preparation for the final dance on the Sunday after the last Saturday. For an hour and a half, the children learn dances like the Waltz, Pretzel, Swing and the Electric Slide as well as skills like serving refreshments or helping someone put on their coat. Parents and guardians of participants have an opportunity to come to the final dance and see what their child has learned. Junior Cotillion was held this year in the Cross Center at Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church, which was large enough to accommodate more participants and more volunteers. It had previously been at Heritage Hall in downtown Frankfort.

Cotillion participants are not just from Franklin County, Tate said. Students from Lexington, Shelbyville and other surrounding cities and counties participate as well. For students like Smithson, who attend schools with a small number of students, cotillion allows them to meet a wide variety of their peers face-to-face. She said that this physical contact was one of the special parts about Cotillion.

“It’s good because I get to meet people across the state… It’s a good way to break the ice,” Smithson said.

Tate said the program is very structured, but the participants enjoy it. The students turn in phones and do not have them throughout the practices and have a dress code that they must follow each week — for the boys, a tie with a dress shirt, shoes and pants and an optional sports jacket and a nice dress for the girls — and wear a name tag. They also have certain rules like not being able to turn down a dance, which takes away some of the nervousness some students may feel. The biggest rule at cotillion is the Golden Rule — treating others how you want to be treated.

“It’s about respect. It’s about respecting others, it’s about respecting yourself and it’s about learning how to accept respect,” Tate said.

A typical session starts with review of what was learned the week before. Then the students do an introductory march and learn some dances. They take a break for refreshments while also learning more etiquette skills and then learn more dancing. Tate said the room is full of “kindness and goodness” and that evolves as time goes on.

“We use every single second of that time practicing and learning our manners,” Tate said.

Smithson also talked about how cotillion’s structure allowed her to unplug from her daily life and just interact face-to-face with other peers. She has even encouraged some of her friends to join cotillion.

To help out with the program are high school volunteers, also called ambassadors, who previously were in cotillion. Tate said about 25 to 30 high school students participated each Saturday this year, with the most being 32 at one time. These students are typically sophomores or older, which leaves a gap year between participants and volunteers.

“It’s actually the biggest compliment I could ever ask for, is for these kids to come back and participate in the way that they do,” Tate said. “They are volunteers. They all have numerous roles.”

Tate said the ambassadors have gone on to become great role models for the middle school students. They help participants with dances, remembering manners and more. Tate said after the cotillion events end on Saturdays, the high school students often go out to dinner afterwards to reminisce and talk about cotillion.

Smithson said she wants to come back and volunteer when she is a sophomore because she enjoys the tradition. That year will also be the first year her younger brother is eligible for cotillion.

Brian Logan is now the parent of two Junior Cotillion participants, eighth-grader Will and sixth-grader Claudia. Logan previously was in the program when he was in middle school. He said that the experience did help him at that age and that while the group was smaller with about 60 kids, cotillion still has much of an emphasis on manners today like it did then.

Logan said that he can tell cotillion has had an affect on how his children act toward others. He notices that they want to reach out to others and make sure they feel included by talking with them, holding the door for others and more acts of kindness. Logan said that cotillion is a great community-wide tradition for Franklin County that helps foster inclusivity in young children.

“From a parent’s perspective, it is a great activity. It is fun and safe,” Logan said.

Smithson’s mother, Angela Saxena, said she’s seen a similar change in her own daughter over the past three years. She believes that cotillion has pushed her daughter and other middle school students out of their comfort zone and helped them grow. She thinks the program relies on a lot of the respect that young children innately have — cotillion just builds on that.

“I think it’s just a good experience for children to have, especially in that crucial time of their life,” Saxena said.

Tate said the most rewarding thing about the program is when a student who does not want to be at cotillion in the beginning becomes one of the leaders by the end of the season.

“The main thing I see is children who come in very reluctant to be there … and by the end, it’s like they are a different person. They have just gained such confidence,” Tate said.

Tate encourages the students to take what they have learned at cotillion and use it in their daily lives.

“I really do think it’s needed more than ever these days,” Tate said. “I always tell them in the room, ‘Chivalry is not dead and you are here to prove that.’”