Editor’s note: This piece is part of Communities of New Jersey, a new series meant to highlight, showcase and cover communities underserved by large media organizations like NJ.com.
The history of cotillions — the formal, highly ritualized gatherings originally intended to introduce women of marrying age to polite society — are a tradition dating to mid-18th century England. But last month, the fancy coming out party came to life, right here in New Jersey.
The Monmouth County Cotillion Committee hosted its 71st annual party for seven debutantes, the French term for young women making their social debut, and for two male counterparts known as escorts.
Like last year’s cotillion, it was held at Riverside Gardens Park in Redbank, an outdoor setting meant to ease coronavirus concerns and unmask radiant smiles that matched the white gowns and pearls that all seven debs wore.
Because the cotillion was once again an outdoor affair, it was likewise held during the day, with a 9 a.m. start time and a brief, one-hour program intended to beat the heat and minimize the chances of transmitting the virus.
“With COVID not really over, it was shortened, but I’m still excited,” said Kylie Queen, 17, who graduated from Eatontown High School on June 1 and is headed for West Virginia University this fall. Queen, who captained her high school lacrosse team and cheerleading squad, said the gown made her feel elegant, if a tiny bit uncomfortable around the waist.
“It’s a bit tight, but…” she said, laughing, as if to add that’s the price of being a debutant.
Roberta Beauford, left, the cotillion’s production manager, talks to the Debutantes and their Escorts during rehearsal. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Members of the 71st Cotillion court dance to “Boogie Down” by singer Al Jarrau during the ceremony. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
While being presented by her escort, her father Rodney Taylor, Sanai Tiara Taylor smiles at him. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
As it turned out, Kylie Juanita Lanay Queen was more than a queen in name only that Saturday. She was chosen as the cotillion’s female monarch, along with this year’s king, Neptune High School senior and National Honor Society member Jordan Bryce Lucas, who was one of the two escorts.
The pair could well have earned their crowns during a choreographed jazz dance performed by all nine debutants and escorts. The two both managed, after limited rehearsal time, to master the steps (or “figures,” as dance moves are known in the rarified parlance of cotillion culture) and display their natural grace, all while attired in a tuxedo and a floor-length gown. And like each of the other cotillion participants, they also earned scholarships from the committee, based on academic and other criteria, worth just over $2,500 for her and $4,000 for him, plus a $500 gift that each received from the Pauline Smith Foundation.
Lucas will attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology this September, with plans to study architecture.
In a brief interview after the morning program, he recognized that the upheaval of the past year, including the pandemic and the racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd, could make it that much easier for skeptics to dismiss cotillions as retrograde exercises in pomp and superfluousness.
But, he said, the quaint rituals and formal dress were only a small part of the broader program sponsored by the cotillion committee, which included the educational opportunities and, of course, the scholarship money.
And even donning a tuxedo and going through the motions of a coronation could serve a useful purpose someday. They’re lessons in comportment and other skills, Lucas said, that could help a young person of color take advantage of economic, social or even political opportunities.
“All these lessons that they taught us, like getting put together and everything, it’s really taught us about the job market, how you should present yourself, how to network with others, really important life skills that you can use,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for minorities to do what you’ve got to do to be successful.”
Kylie Queen is crowned the 71st Annual Monmouth County Scholarship Cotillion Queen by 2020 Queen Briana Argant. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The 2021 King Jordan Bryce Lucas and Queen Kylie Queen after the ceremony. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Newly-crowned Queen Kylie Queen is greeted by her family after the ceremony. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
This year’s king and queen were coronated by last year’s royal couple, former Neptune High School classmates Tony Owens, now a rising sophomore at Princeton, and Brianna Argant, who’s headed for her second year at Montclair State.
Like most of the other debs, Queen was presented at the cotillion by her father, Walter Queen, also dressed for the occasion in a black suit and tie.
Walter Queen, the mailroom coordinator at Monmouth Shore Medical Center, sat with his daughter off to the side, then walked her to center stage and stood by as she held a prolonged curtsy to a gathering of about 60 family and friends on a grassy slope overlooking the Navesink River.
“She looks beautiful,” he agreed, his heart swollen with pride even before the program began.
“Absolutely. Joy, pride. It’s just an amazing sense of accomplishment. Seeing all the young children out here, going on to do great things in their careers.”
During the presentation of each debutant and the two escorts, committee member and cotillion emcee Yvonne Grayson read biographies that included academic, athletic and other accomplishments.
Debutant Indirah Rasheedah Chyna Mitter presents herself while her father, Daryl Jackson, stands behind. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
During the ceremony, Kylie Queen presents herself while with her father Walter Queen. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Escort Jordan Bryce Lucas, left, takes a photo of Debutant Jordana Cassidy St. Phard prior to the start of the cotillion. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna was on hand and spoke briefly, offering the cotillion a warm welcome.
“It’s great to have you in Red Bank, and please, come back often,” Menna told the gathering.
The past two years have been a kind of homecoming for the cotillion, a precursor of which was held in Red Bank as a YMCA-related event before its first official staging at the Asbury Park High School Auditorium in 1950. Other venues have included the Asbury Park Convention Hall, the Sea Girt Inn, and the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank.
“So, we’re glad to be back home,” Grayson told the mayor and Borough Councilman Edward Zipprich, who was also on hand.
Over its 71-year history, the Monmouth cotillion has awarded $1.9 million in scholarships to college-bound minority students from Monmouth County, funded mainly through individual and corporate contributions, according to the committee.
Debutants are offered a four-month program that provides mentorship, coaching and career-oriented guidance, and students are trained in etiquette, public speaking and more.
Apart from Lucas and Queen, the other debutants and escorts were: Jordana Cassidy St. Phard of Red Bank; Jidi Anifowoshe of Holmdel; Indirah Rasheedah Chyna Mitter of Keyport; Tatiana Libreros of Asbury Park; Laila Aniyah Kendle of Asbury Park; Saniah Janae Foster of Asbury Park; and Sanai Tiara Taylor of Neptune.
The committee chairwoman, Johanna Robinson, invited high school students throughout Monmouth County to apply for the 2022 cotillion on the committee’s website, www.monmouthcountycotillion.org.
Debutant Tatiana Libreros is escorted during the ceremony by her brother Luis Libreros. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Debutant Jordana Cassidy St. Phard presents herself while with her father Jean Marie St. Phard. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Debutant Saniah Jane Foster is escorted by her father Floyd at the start of the cotillion. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected].
Aristide Economopoulos may be reached at [email protected].