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Cotillion director teaches the dying art of good manners

Jon Williams (BA psychology ’76) is bringing civility back.

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.

Jon Williams

Jon Williams teaches kids good manners through cotillions. Photo courtesy of Jon Williams

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.”

Boys come in jackets and ties, 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.”

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 the tools that bring out the best in us if we’re good at them.”

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