A rich tradition: Despite low attendance, annual debutante ball still provides lessons
There have been times when the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority building off Short Street was jam-packed with high school girls talking, laughing and learning.
But the cozy facility is a little more quiet these days as the number of girls preparing for the sorority’s annual debutante ball has dwindled.
“There were periods when there were as many as 70 girls,” said member Clara Corry. “Now, we don’t have numbers that high. If we get 10 or 12 girls it’s a good year.”
The women have been working to keep the rich tradition alive by bringing in fresh blood, but that can be difficult.
“So many young ladies are working, athletes, involved in band, they don’t have time,” member Phyllis Mahmud said.
Before girls can attend the ball, they take part in weekly “charm school” sessions, where they receive lessons in etiquette and dancing.
“They get training on the elegance of the minuet and they learn social grace,” Mahmud said. “We also encourage them to continue their education past high school and talk about things that are relevant in order for them to live healthy, happy lives.”
The girls also get advice about how to handle the future.
“We give them tools to address different situations that they might encounter as they move through life as young women,” member Nikisha Leak said.
Corry said discussions held during charm school create an interesting dialogue among the girls.
“It’s a good avenue for the girls to understand and define who they are rather than who someone else is,” she said. “It’s a chance to understand their strengths and weakness.”
Being a deb
Many of the girls who selected to be debutantes are recommended by their high school guidance counselors, but the sorority is open to suggestions from other sources.
After the girls are chosen, they begin attending charm school every Saturday for two hours from January through May.
Leak said girls from all over Rowan County are invited to be part of the group.
“It gives them a chance to meet new people and make new friendships,” she said.
Jasmine Jordan, a junior at West Rowan, said she was nervous about starting the process, but that quickly faded.
“I think the more you learn about other people, you find out things about yourself that you didn’t know,” she said.
Leak said being a debutante has given her more exposure to the world around her.
“I got a chance to get out of my comfort zone and experience new things,” she said. “As a grown woman now, I really appreciated those experiences.”
Corry said she never attended a ball, but she wishes she had.
“I didn’t hear about Zetas until I came to college because I grew up in a rural area and we didn’t know about it,” she said. “I was interested in joining (the sorority) later because of the friendship and service aspects.”
The sorority, which was founded in January 1920, practices stewardship in the community by volunteering at Rowan Helping Ministries and adopting students at Koontz Elementary School.
“We’re all about scholarship and service to our community,” member Natalie Currie said. “We enjoy working together in sisterly love.”
But the ball is the group’s biggest event of the year.
“We started in 1950,” said Mahmud. “As teenagers, that was what we looked forward to. It made us feel like special young ladies.”
Many of the girls show up for the ball on the arm of their father. They all wear big white dresses, which are typically puffy.
“The girls are introduced and we tell the community about their ambitions,” Currie said. “They are escorted by their fathers or a male figure and the young ladies curtsy.”
The girls vote for a miss congeniality of the group, who becomes the “queen” of the ball.
During the ball, they perform the colonial minuet.
When this year’s 63rd ball wraps up in May, the participants will officially dubbed debutantes, a title that allows them to apply for scholarships through the sorority.
“This is just the beginning, we let them see there is so much more to attain,” Corry said.