What is cotillion?


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What does the word cotillion even mean? Is cotillion still a thing?!

Some of you are very familiar with the word cotillion. You may have attended a local cotillion as a child and can quickly recall the memory of wearing white gloves or navy blazers as you learned the foxtrot with friends.

Or perhaps you have a hazy idea of the general concept (mainly because of the Gilmore Girls episode where Rory makes her debut at a cotillion).

And some of you may have no idea what cotillion is or how to pronounce it. And that’s totally fine… I get it, it’s kind of a weird word. For the record, it’s “kuh-TIL-yuhn.”

Whatever your familiarity with cotillion, I’m glad you found this post. The truth is, the word cotillion has meant different things throughout history and across cultures. I’ve put together a few different interpretations of the word, both historical and modern, to give you a better understanding of all things cotillion.

History of cotillion

The word ‘cotillion’ became prominent during the 18th century in Europe and America when balls and lavish parties were popular. What a time to be alive, right?! A Cotillion was a formal group dance, danced with partners in a square formation, typically at the close of the evening.

Sometimes the dances were memorized and rehearsed and other times a “caller” would direct the group. Once people are familiar with the basic steps, a caller just calls out different figures and sequences. These combinations become the complete performance. I imagine having a caller made it easier for the dance to be performed while avoiding a lot of rehearsal. Cotillions were forerunners to other organized group dances like the quadrille and eventually, square dancing and contra dancing.

Traditional cotillion (popular in the 18th century).
The quadrille (popular in the 18th-19th century).
American square dancing (1950s and beyond).
Contra dance.


Popular in the Philippines, a Cotillion is a formal choreographed group dance performed by young ladies and gentlemen. The dance is associated with a coming-of-age party when a girl turns 18. A party themed much like a debutante ball or quinceañera.

The dance is also performed during events similar to high school proms. This video shows how impressive these dances can be.

Debutante Balls… not to be confused with cotillions

A debutante ball is sometimes referred to as a cotillion. Historically, debutante balls were formal events where young ladies in long white gloves and floor length white dresses were presented to society. The debut would have been initiated by their parents with the intention of finding potential suitors.

Today, deb balls still include the white dresses, but their purpose is more modern. They focus on celebrating the young ladies and their families, networking, contributing to charity, and enjoying time with friends. Debutante balls are held all over the world but seem to be most popular in the American South.

In my experience here in the South, a “debutante ball” is for high school to college age ladies. Whereas a “cotillion” is for both boys and girls around the middle school age. Southern Living tends to agree.

But it’s easy to see how they’re similar… participants receive lessons in etiquette, manners, and social graces and there is always a dancing component. Whether a formal choreographed group dance or simple ballroom dance with a partner, dancing plays a role.

Modern cotillions for tweens and teens

The type of cotillion I teach is directed toward modern students, specifically middle schoolers. My online and in-person cotillion programs focus on improving students’ confidence and quality of character through social skills, etiquette, manners, and social dance (in pairs). Sydney Dunn Etiquette cotillions consists of a series of events that include classes, a formal full-course instructional meal, and, finally, a Cotillion Ball.

Here I’m trying to get a group of middle schoolers started on the Cupid Shuffle at a Cotillion Ball.

I teach social dance which includes a lot of line dances. But I’ve never attempted a formal, “called” group dance to conclude the ball. Perhaps it may be a good addition, what do you think? Could we get middle schoolers to pull it off like they did in the 18th century?!

I think I want to try.

The use of these videos is for instructional or illustrative purposes only. Sydney Dunn Etiquette LLC does not have or claim any rights to these videos.



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