DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum teaches social graces

Kanye West grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift. Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” during a speech by President Obama. Tennis player Serena Williams cussing out a line judge. Has an age of incivility come to America?

Not if Jon Williams (BA ’76) has anything to say about it.

Sixty years ago, Williams’ parents — a pair of professional dancers who had worked with Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire — founded Jon D. Williams Cotillions, which provided dance instruction and social-etiquette training to children in the Colorado Springs area. Williams took over the company in the early 1980s and expanded it from six to 50 programs nationwide, including a spring cotillion at DU’s Cable Center. The Denver-based company now teaches more than 10,000 people a year.

In addition to the cotillion dances for kids in elementary and middle school, JDW Social Education Programs also offers social training for high school students, colleges and businesses. Participants learn everything from table manners and interview techniques to communication skills and customer relations.

“The demand is huge,” Williams says. “More businesses are recognizing the role that social skills play in regard to their employees and how to deal with their clients. More colleges are adding it to their core curriculums. It’s added value for young people going out in business. Parents are recognizing it. When you see all the problems we’re dealing with today, whether it’s from the politicians or it’s from our celebrities or just general bad behavior, we’re losing our sense of civility.”

Replacing Facebook with face-to-face interaction, the cotillions recall social dances with boys in jackets and ties and girls in dresses and gloves — more because of clammy hands than any sense of fashion, Williams explains — getting a dose of etiquette while they learn to dance.

“We’ll have them do the jitterbug, and in between the jitterbug we’re talking to them about a character scenario — what would you do in this situation?” Williams says. “And then we’re going to do some salsa. So they’re still thinking that over and they’re having fun, but they’re not in a lecture situation. They’re learning things subliminally in the process of having fun.”

Cotillion programs meet five times over a 10-week period, each 90-minute session devoted to a mix of dance lessons and etiquette instruction. On the final evening parents are invited and mothers dance with sons and fathers with daughters.

One parent who knows cotillion well is Sheila Oldenburg (BA ’78). She has two children who have gone through cotillion — her daughter, April, now 22, was in middle school when she started the program.

“She will tell you that she was a little chunky and a little clunky and feeling like she wasn’t as polished as she wished she had been,” Oldenburg says. “It really gave her confidence.”

Williams says he hears from former students about how the cotillion prepared them for the big events to follow: dating, college and job interviews, business meetings.

“Social skills are not about how you hold a cup of tea with your pinky stuck out or how to use a fingerbowl; it’s about substance and character,” he says. “You’re seeing what’s happening on the corporate levels today — quite often character and ethics are missing. Social skills are kind of the tools that bring out the best in us if we’re good at them.”

For more information on Jon D. Williams Cotillions, visit www.cotillion.com.

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