WEST PALM BEACH — There was a time when debutantes lined the floor of the greatest ballrooms in record numbers for an emerging girl’s coming-of-age celebration. But, last week, for the big ceremony where men were decked out in tuxedos and ladies wore finery and full-length gowns, there were only six debutantes, signaling a sign of the times as far as the age-old ritual goes.
Despite the low number, the girls still were presented to the public in style as they were escorted by handsome young men and serenaded by their fathers or father-figures.
Gabrielle Wise-Brice, 17, a senior at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, was crowned queen of the Cotillion and was awarded a college scholarship. Her parents were elated when she was announced as the winner. Her father, Duke Ellington Brice, was so excited he ran onto the stage to hug and kiss his “baby girl.”
Brice and his exwife Jennifer Wise later said it was not only her winning the crown that they valued; it was the entire experience. The event is still relevant, they said, despite the decline in numbers which appeared to signal a lack of interest in today’s generation.
“I shed tears of joy today. I’m proud. I still think this is relevant, especially for black girls, many of whom don’t know what it means. I told them to Google the word debutante so they’ll know what it means,” said Jennifer Wise, who was a debutante in 1980.
Wise said she wants young girls everywhere to value the ritual celebrating a young girl’s coming of age. Anna Belle Baines, president of the Elite Bridge Club of West Palm Beach, which sponsors the event now in its 64th year, said her group also tries to provide cultural experiences for the girls and provide them with role models. Baines said the group plans to continue sponsoring the event.
Prior to the ball held at the Marriott Hotel Cityplace in West Palm Beach on Dec. 27, the Elite Bridge Club sponsored a career luncheon featuring several prominent women from the area. One of the debutantes said one speaker’s story had a profound effect on her.
That speaker, Rose Anne Brown, public information officer for the Riviera Beach Police Department, related her personal story of overcoming teen pregnancy as an honors student and going on to two successful careers in which she traveled the country free of charge. Brown said she knew she disappointed her family by being a very smart girl who wound up pregnant but she said she bounced back.
“I was so impressed by her,” said Tanaysja Davis, 17, who was second runner-up at the cotillion. “Her speech changed my life. She said she took lemons and made lemonade. She had a child and it didn’t slow her down. She still strived for her dreams. She kept going,” said Tanaysja, who also received a scholarship.
“I’m very proud,” said Priscilla Davis, Tanaysja’s mother. “This entire experience has been a dream come true for our family. The speakers had a great impact on my daughter. The girls needed to hear what the ladies were saying. We need this desperately for our young girls.”
The other speakers included Sonja Kelly, a choreographer and founder of a dance school; Keli Fulton, a local television news anchor; Wanita Dixon, an engineer; and Betty Lou Wells, a math teacher.
Johnnie Mae Hayes, Tanaysja’s grandmother, said the family had never experienced anything like the luncheon. “This has been an awesome experience,” she said. “Those speakers really woke those girls up. They were paying close attention.”
Baines, the Elite Bridge Club president, and Carolyn Taylor, the member who nominated Tanaysja, said that is exactly the impact they hope to have on the debutantes. Besides teaching them the social graces, poise and elegance, they hope the girls leave with something they can value for life.
The other debutantes, all 17 years old, were Myah Knighton-Black, first runner up and a scholarship recipient; Shanetria Lorick, who came from Atlanta to participate; Ebonee Pierce; and Tiareah Jakes 17.