Originally created 04/01/97

The big debut



Cicely Harpe will step into her white dress in a couple of weeks, pull on a pair of gloves and affix a sparkling tiara to her perfectly done hairdo.

Then, most likely, she'll cry.

"I know I'm going to be in tears. This is something that only happens once in a lifetime," said Cicely, 18, a senior at Butler High School.

The event is her cotillion with the Rosa T. Beard Debutante Society, the time when she and 65 other senior girls will be presented to society.

The Rosa T. Beard Debutante Society and the Augusta Area Cultural Society hold their cotillions every spring. The Augusta Symphony Guild Cotillion Ball, which features young women who are juniors in college, is held every November. Augusta's Philippino-American Cultural Society has a ceremony every two years in the winter.

In some families, becoming a debutante is a tradition. In others, it's a first-time event for a daughter who has spent the year learning etiquette and social skills, doing community service and meeting new friends.

LaTasha Plair, also a senior at Butler, didn't know how to set a table formally until she attended a seminar with the Augusta Area Cultural Society. The senior joined the club last year after a friend asked her if she wanted to be a debutante.

The process differs by organization. Usually girls and young women are recommended by friends who already are members. After a screening process, which may include recommendations and an interview, they're invited to be in the club. Having good morals and being involved in extracurricular activities are among screeners look for.

THE DEBUTANTES OR THEIR families must be willing to pay more than $100 for membership each year in the Rosa T. Beard and Augusta Area societies and $200 to $500 for a cotillion dress and accessories. Families of college women who participate in the Augusta Symphony Guild Cotillion Ball are asked to donate $1,600.

This year, more than 100 senior girls applied to the Rosa T. Beard society, and 66 were accepted. About five dropped out.

The Augusta Area Cultural Society has 15 senior debutantes. Twenty had applied. Both groups also have junior debutantes. The symphony guild has 21 debutantes.

Jessica Williams, a senior at Lakeside High School, wasn't worried about getting into the Rosa T. Beard Society. Her friends had told her that not everyone could get into the club, but she thought she had character traits that would make a good debutante, including honesty, and the ability to set goals and priorities.

"All teen-age girls possess the ability to be a debutante," Jessica, 17, said. "It's up to them to choose what they want to do."

Allicent Austin, 18, didn't get to choose to be a debutante. Since her mom founded the Augusta Area Cultural Society, being a debutante is a family tradition and something she's been a part of since she was 5. Although she's tired of it, she can't quit because her mom pays for it.

"Through the years, I've learned to be a young lady, have good manners and represent myself in a positive way," said Allicent, a senior at Glenn Hills High School.

THE PRICE TO BE a debutante and the stringent requirements are reasons why debutante societies are sometimes viewed as only for the rich. Members know better.

"Most of my friends hear debutantes, and they think we're snobby and rich," LaTasha, 17, said. "This is not true. Instead of being on the streets, we have somewhere to be active."

The social skills they learn enhance their self-esteem, the girls say.

"We all seem like we're all that, but that's because we don't have a low-self esteem," Cicely, 17, said. "We know we can be anybody we want to be, and we can move as high as we want to go."

MEMBERS OF THE Rosa T. Beard and Augusta Area debutante societies, historically black clubs, meet at least once a month, learning social skills and talking about teen issues. They also must attend monthly activities, usually community-service-based. The symphony guild group meets three times a year.

The Augusta Area Cultural Society also has a gentlemen's club, which has 30 guys, including six beaus (aged 17 and 18).

Dondiel Johnson, a senior at Glenn Hills High School, decided to join the gentlemen's club in its first year.

"I don't think too many people know about it, but the guys that are in it enjoy being in it," said Dondiel, 18. "It puts us a level above."

THE SOCIETIES ALSO have levels, based on age. Juniors in high schools are sub debutantes and are not allowed to wear the white dress until they are seniors.tantes.} The main purpose of the annual cotillion is to feature the senior girls, and it's something they anticipate.

"You look foward to stepping up," LaTasha said. "Last year, we couldn't wait to get into the white dress."

Some girls plan to get married in their cotillion dress. The years of growth and learning that the dress represents is why Cicely, whose parents spent nearly $500 on her dress and accessories, expects to be emotional at her cotillion.

"The night is something special. We're being introduced to society. We've come a long way together," she said. "It won't be long until we go our separate ways."