EST PALM BEACH — The Elite Bridge Club has been presenting debutantes in a lavish ball for 62 years. But times have changed and Anna Belle Baines, president of the Elite Bridge Club has seen the number of girls dwindle over the years.
In days past, it was considered a high honor for both mother and daughter to be part of the program, with as many as 25 girls being presented in the group’s annual lavish ceremony. That is no longer so. Some parents of today’s teenagers no longer view the “coming out” ritual as relevant. Also, due to the poor condition of the economy, donations for the program booklet are also in decline. Yet, the club has no intention of ending the practice.
That was evident when the Elite Club hosted its latest cotillion during the recent holidays, which members hailed as a big success, even though the debutantes were only five in number this time.
La Cresha Nicole Weary of Palm Beach Lakes High School in West Palm Beach was crowned Queen of the Cotillion for garnering the most advertisements for the program booklet, whose proceeds benefit the club’s scholarship fund that has awarded up to $5,000 annually to students.
“It was beautiful,” said Baines.
The group also held a Get Acquainted Social, a church service and a Career Luncheon for the girls.
The club has held the annual debutante’s ball since 1949, when a group of women who gathered during the summer to play bridge saw a need for such an affair for young black girls.
“We decided we would introduce a group of girls to society and call them debutantes,’” Baines said.
The club invited speakers to talk about subjects ranging from etiquette to schooling and faith.
“Every year, as a group, we would visit a church in the city,” Baines explained.
The girls were taken on tours of museums and art galleries to expand their cultural horizons.
The club also donated money to charities such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, Baines said.
But the main event was always the debutante ball at which the girls being groomed as young women with all the social graces would be presented to the public.
The first cotillion took place at the Women’s Club House in the heart of what was then a segregated community, later moving to the Sunset Lounge, a popular venue known for hosting celebrity performers from across the United States.
Eventually, the event relocated to the prestigious Flagler Museum on the island of Palm Beach. Despite racial segregation, the girls were honored in high society, in the community of the rich and famous.
After a decade or so at the Flagler Museum, the event moved back to West Palm Beach, at a Marriott Hotel, but has remained just as lavish.
Everybody attending wears formal attire. The girls enter on the arms of male escorts and dance the keynote tune with their fathers or some other significant male figure in their lives.
For the French family of West Palm Beach, the ritual has spanned three decades.
Gwendolyn Gilbert French, now retired, was a debutante in 1963 while a freshman at Florida A&M University.
“It was an honor,” she said. “You had to hold the torch high with your quality of life and have great character and integrity.”
At least five of her cousins have also been debutantes and this year, her granddaughter, Caitlyn, 5, was a junior debutante. She is the daughter of French’s son Tramond and his wife Donnette of Elkton, Md. Tramond was an escort for a relative in the Debutante Ball in 1990.
As the winner this time around, Weary received a college scholarship. She plans to attend Florida State University in Tallahassee. Her court included Rodneshia Saunders, first runner-up, of Cardinal Newman High School; Ivory Lynette Paulk, second runner up; Alexis Glory-Savon Lockhart of Suncoast High and Kier Kortae Riley of Palm Beach Lakes High School.
In addition to Caitlyn French, the other junior debutantes were Artonia Aubre Wimberly and Jaylancia Thomas.
For more information on nominating a senior girl for this year’s Elite Bridge Club cotillion, call 561-659-5573. Participants must live in Palm Beach County and must be a high school senior during this year.
Photo: CAROL PORTER/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
LaCresha Nicole Weary, Queen of the Cotillion hosted by the Elite Bridge Club.