ETHS Student Nialie Pompilus speaks out for change at last year's Cotillion. Photo by Lynn Trautmann/LTPhoto Evanston

The 2017 Cotillion Board members with their mothers. Photo by Lynn Trautmann/LTPhoto Evanston

After 63 years, the long white gloves have been put away for good: Cotillion has come to an end.

This long-standing Evanston tradition – an invitation-only formal dance enjoyed by a select group of Evanston Township High School students – was cancelled permanently by its current Board earlier this summer. In recent months, the Board had struggled to reshape the dance into a more inclusive event while preserving its fundraising capacity. After much debate, which at times became emotionally charged with issues of race, class, and gender, the Board reached the conclusion that, despite donations raised for local charities, it was time to end the event. Referencing the climate both nationally and locally, Board member Claire Wootton said, “It just doesn’t reflect who we are as a community.”

Cotillion, which began in 1954 with eight girls whose parents decided to host a “special gathering” for their daughters, had evolved in recent years into a charity event planned and passed down by a group of 20 ETHS juniors and seniors and their mothers. Through fundraising efforts culminating in a dinner-dance every February, the Cotillion Board has raised money for a host of Evanston-based not-for-profits, including the Dajae Coleman Foundation, Hilda’s Place, and the YWCA Domestic Violence Services. This year, the Board donated more than $15,000 to Girls Play Sports, an organization that works to introduce girls in elementary and middle school to a variety of sports in the hope that they will continue playing into high school. Over the last decade the Board had also sought to create more diversity at the event. Thirty percent of the 2016-17 board were women of color.

Despite fundraising and efforts to diversify, many ETHS students and parents criticized Cotillion as an elitist affair. At issue were the gala’s small size and upscale venue. Typically, the dance was limited to roughly 280 juniors and seniors – a small fraction of the ETHS student body – and the event took place at the private Evanston Golf Club, a site that is often considered a symbol of privilege and exclusion.

Kathy Slaughter, whose daughter was one of two black members of the Board for one year, said that she knew the gathering was “not diverse” when her daughter was asked to serve, but her daughter made efforts to invite more students of color. The racial divide had long been an issue, and in 1991, during one period of particular tension, black students at ETHS initiated a formal dance called the Ebony Ball largely as a response to Cotillion. More recently, a private Facebook group for the class of 2017 featured heated commentary about the dance.

The controversy reached full boil last year, when members of the Board divided over whether or not to continue the dance in its current form. While some felt the gathering should be cancelled outright, others believed it could be reinvented as more inclusive and open. Ultimately, the Board decided to proceed with Cotillion for the current year but to look for ways to change it going forward. In protest, however, more than 80 invited guests boycotted the dance, and some members of the Board spoke out about why Cotillion had come to symbolize values they could not embrace.

In prepared remarks at Cotillion, two members of the Board – ETHS junior Nialie Pompilus and senior Grace Giangreco – argued that the time had come to change the event into something that reflected the values of the community. Ms. Giangreco remarked that, although Cotillion did not intend to exclude other students, the results “reinforce class privilege, reflect racial segregation, perpetuate gender norms and a gender binary.” Despite the money raised for good causes, the dance, “hurts feelings and creates unnecessary divisions,” she concluded. She served on the Board for two years, as did her older sister. 

Ms. Giangreco also suggested that the very structure of the Board worked to perpetuate these divisions. “A mostly affluent, white, cisgender board passes their spots on to their friends: mostly affluent, white, cisgendered girls – who invite the same, effectively excluding the vast majority of the ETHS population. This creates a lack of diversity at the dance that puts Evanston’s long-held faith in unity to shame.”

Ms. Pompilus, who is also a Board member of SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism), said “the intention of Cotillion was never to be exclusive,” but at this time “what Cotillion represents now, is a racist, classist, elitist, and transphobic system that should not and cannot reflect our community.”  While “it’s really important we point out the good that has come from this event,” she urged that “it is time we take a stand and speak out for those who have been silenced as a result of a lack of privilege that wasn’t passed down to them generationally.”

Kathy Tisdahl, mother of Board member Riley Hughes, said parents had a harder time accepting the end of a long tradition than did the girls on the Board.  “During the discussions, there was a lot of talk about white privilege, which some parents took to mean their children were being called racists. They didn’t fully understand what white privilege meant, but they eventually came around to it.”

Laura Tucker, mother of Ms. Giangreco, said that much of the tension that arose between some of the Board members and mothers centered on differing interpretations of the language used to characterize the problem. “Parents were hearing the term ‘white privilege’ as accusatory, whereas the kids live in a different world and react to the words in a much different way.” 

When Board members received a standing ovation after their speeches at the dance, “I think that’s when parents really heard that this is what the kids wanted,” said Ms. Tisdahl.

When reflecting on why, after many years of talk, the Board chose this year to end the dance, Ms. Tisdahl said that several factors had played into the decision. “I think the Trump election really made kids do some self-reflection … they felt pride in being from ETHS, but a little hypocritical at the same time.”

Liz Brieva, mother of two former Cotillion Board members and herself a former Board member, said that the girls took a great deal of initiative in looking for more inclusive models of charitable fundraisers, including a dance marathon.  But in the end, she said, the current invitation-only nature of the dance was anathema to the spirit in which many Evanston youth were raised. “We try to teach our kids to be fair, to be kind, to be inclusive,” she said. “And yet these are not the values that are coming out at Cotillion at all … in the times we are living in now, we need to make a stand and say ‘this is not right.’”

Ms. Brieva said the discussions were healthy and productive for the girls, who spent time debating issues that are central to their lives in Evanston. She said many of the girls felt that “We live in a special place … and if we choose to live here, we have to ask ourselves the question, ‘What do we stand for?’” 

Other parents and Board members, however, thought more of an effort could have been made to reshape the dance to address concerns of exclusivity, while still preserving its positive aspects. Some were even surprised by the announcement that it had ended.

 “I thought they were on a path to make changes … and the next thing I heard it was just not going to go forward,” said Sheryl Fyock, mother of Board member Zoe Wilson. Another mother, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “There was not unanimity around disbanding Cotillion and the good work it does.” However, she did concede that there “was unanimity around wanting to change the name of the organization to remove some of the misunderstandings and misplaced assumptions that the title, Cotillion, conjures up.”

Ms. Fyock went on to say that while she “cannot defend” aspects of the dance, she felt that “some of the motivation to end the event was the feeling that ‘we want to be the class that ends it’ without regard to the good it did, for instance how to raise money that keeps so many great not-for-profits going.” 

In response to charges that the dance was racially segregated, Ms. Fyock posed the question, “Is the problem Cotillion or is the problem that the kids live deeply segregated lives?”

Another mother involved, who also wished to remain anonymous, said efforts had been made to diversify the Board both racially and socioeconomically. Every year, she explained, the Board awarded scholarships, which meant that five of the 20 Board members were not required to pay the $595 asked of each family.

She also said that the dance, much like an adult charitable gathering, was essentially a fundraiser and was not intended to exclude other students, but by its nature must be invitation-only. She concluded that much more should have been done to preserve the event, adding, “The group decided to protest, rather than address and correct the problems … I feel terrible that $15,000 will no longer go to a local charity.”

Arely Canchola, whose daughter Vanessa Rodriguez was one of two Latinas on the Board this year, said she was sad the dance had ended – and, in particular, the way it had ended. “Lots of girls were scared to speak out [in support of the dance] because they didn’t want people to think they were racist … but they wanted to keep it the way it was.”  She emphasized the importance of Cotillion’s raising money for charity, and said it was impractical to think many more students could be accommodated at the dance. Comparing Cotillion to the Ebony Ball and Latino Quest Gala, a formal held by ETHS’s Hispanic students, Ms. Canchola said she did not believe any of the organizations were racist, even though each had limited guest lists. 

“There was too much unnecessary drama,” she concluded.

No stranger to controversy, Cotillion has faced other periods of uncertainty in the past. The dance was temporarily suspended in 2010 after reports of excessive drinking and reported visits to the emergency room. Ms. Slaughter, whose daughter served on the Board her junior year but decided not to continue into her senior year, concluded after chaperoning the dance, “I didn’t feel like it was a worthwhile experience … I was really unhappy with what I saw and experienced … Kids came in the door drunk.” 

After the 2010 Cotillion, the Woman’s Club of Evanston, where the dance had been held for decades, came to the decision it could no longer play host because the event had become “too much of a liability for us,” said Julie Chernoff, President of the Woman’s Club at the time. The next year Cotillion was moved to the Evanston Golf Club and a sit-down dinner was added, which meant that the event became smaller and more expensive. With its focus turning more intentionally toward to philanthropy, the dance began to look more like an adult charitable event, with efforts made to reduce underage drinking. 

Although the dance was never sponsored by ETHS, many felt Cotillion was incongruous with the equity agenda embraced by the school’s administration, teachers, and student body. Nichole Boyd, Student Activities Director at ETHS, said many parents confused Cotillion with a school-sponsored dance, calling to complain about its exclusivity. “I’ve fielded a lot of complaints about race, about finances, with regard to the dance,” she said. She urged students who wanted more widely attended events to work through the student council “so we can ensure inclusivity.”

As for what, if anything, might replace Cotillion, no consensus appears likely at the moment. 

 “Everything has its time,” concluded Ms. Brieva, “and it’s time to do something different.”