- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

Young women in white satin and pearls will curtsy and waltz away the evening with their dashing escorts today in a debutante ball at Washington’s Willard Inter-Continental Hotel.

The Amerigroup 2004 Youth Cotillion Debutante Ball revives an old Washington tradition long reserved for the elite members of the community, but this time with an urban flair to reflect the District’s economic and ethnic diversity.

The 10 debutantes and their escorts who attend public, private and charter schools in the city participated in a 12-week educational program to build self-esteem and encourage civic awareness.

“I’m so thrilled about being introduced to society. I’ve dreamed of being a debutante,” said Devette Phillips, 16, a junior at Ballou Senior High School. She will be escorted by Donnell D. Owens, the vice president of student government at Ballou.

“This experience has been great,” said Devette. “We have all learned how to get along with one another, and there’s a sense of camaraderie.”

“We are trying to give these young ladies a glimpse into a larger world, culturally and in terms of community service,” said Kenneth Brown, an executive with Amerigroup, a community-based Medicaid-managed health-care company that joined with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to sponsor the youth cotillion.

“The cotillion preparation has opened their eyes to life beyond their neighborhoods,” said Mr. Brown. “The young ladies were glad to be a part of something so positive. One of the young men explained to me that he was just happy to join in a family-type activity.”

Days before the ball, the teenagers perfected their dance moves at the Emery Recreation Center while music from the 1960s Motown era resonated throughout the spacious room. The guys fell to their knees as the Temptations’ 1966 hit, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” echoed in the background.

“Initially, I didn’t want to do this, but I started attending the practices and the different workshops and the community-service programs. And, I found them to all be very interesting,” said Donnell, who will fall to his knees in a white dinner jacket and black trousers for Devette today.

Donnell said his and Devette’s participation in the cotillion reflects well on their high school. “This shows that students at Ballou do participate in positive activities,” he said. “A lot has happened at the school, but no one can point to the entire student body for one person’s mistakes.”

The girls and their escorts also will waltz to music from the 1981 movie “Ragtime,” while family members, friends and well-wishers enjoy the ceremony that serves as a rite of passage for young women.

“It’s refreshing to have a moment when young ladies can be young ladies. I think it is an important experience for them. Besides the prom, there are not many events they would dress up like this and be treated like young women with values,” said Carol Foster, the ball’s choreographer and director and founder of the D.C. Youth Ensemble.

“It’s an important experience and something they will remember the rest of their lives,” said Mrs. Foster of Mitchellville.

At the Emery Recreation Center, Kemi Owens, 17, gazed at her reflection in a full-length mirror and smiled as Janice Rankins, a costume designer and couturier, ensured the gown Kemi wore fit just right during a final fitting.

“I feel like a princess,” said the Archbishop Carroll High School junior. Kemi will be escorted by Patrick Petty, who attends R.H. Terrell Junior High School. “It has been a lot of fun learning about etiquette, and I’ve learned a lot about myself” throughout the program, said Kemi, who plans to attend North Carolina Agricultural &Technical; State University.

With homework, lacrosse practice and preparation for the cotillion, Shaunte Anthony’s life has been pretty hectic, but the 17-year-old senior at the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School in Northeast said her efforts have paid off.

“This is stressful, but it’s been fun,” she said during a break in the dance rehearsal. “I’ve learned a lot attending etiquette classes. I’ve learned how to be a young lady. Young ladies are not loud and boisterous. They voice their opinions and stick to their convictions.

“Most of all, young ladies never chew gum in public. They do that in the privacy of their homes,” said Shaunte.

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