Debutante Confidential

By Madeline Cummings Noal
Photography Courtesy of the Author and other archival sources

It’s debutante season and although it all seems like fun and games, it’s hard work for the girls, their families and the organizations they represent. Here, we get an exclusive look into the world of the deb from someone who has bowed the Texas Dip a few times recently.

With the enthusiasm of a girl on the cusp of young adulthood, I eagerly checked my mailbox diligently during the spring of my senior year of high school. No, not for the college acceptance, which had been received in January from Ole Miss., yet instead I was anxiously waiting my invitation to participate as a debutante in the Helping Hand Ball, which supports a highly esteemed philanthropic organization with deep ties to the community. Since I had been young, I had idolized the debutantes in the ball as they swiftly moved across the floor in big-skirted white dresses, and had held my breath, nearly bursting with admiration, as I watched they did their Texas Dip.

Where did all this start? As I child I studied the pages of Kay Thompson’s book Eloise, the book about a precocious child who wants nothing more than to attend a debutante ball in her home, the Plaza hotel. I was enthralled by words like debutante, escort, grace, and honor, and wanted nothing more than to see a debutante ball myself, just like dear, little Eloise. Luckily for me, debutante balls in Texas start early;  young girls can participate as a courtmember in a ball in elementary school as a pre-pre-deb ritual. While many of my peers were drooling over their favorite movie stars, my friends and I were captivated by the beauty of the Helping Hand Debutantes. We would practice doing the Texas Dip, or at least our version of it, since we could never see what the girls legs were doing under their skirts. At the back of the Palmer Events Center, where the event has been held for years, at the age of 14, my girlfriends and I mimicked the debs we saw on stage and bowed back at them, covertly hidden behind the event’s myriad tapestries and floral arrangements.

Because I had considered the debutantes to be the epitome of beauty, class, strength, style, and grace, I felt they were always everything I had ever wanted to be. As a freshman in high school I had been a Helping Hand Girl, a type of junior deb who was presented briefly, among a large group of boys and girls, right before the real debutantes: the real deals. Looking back at my embarrassing braces and bangs, I thought of myself as a caterpillar, and to be an actual debutante four years later, when my teeth were perfected by orthodonture, when my hairstyle was no longer on-trend, but instead what looked best, and when my level of confidence has risen would be a dream come true – my presentation culminated into my becoming a butterfly.

Many may think that debutantes have become irrelevant to our modern society, an antiquated remnant of past times. Really? How so? I never shared this belief, and it wasn’t until I spent a summer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., that I realized other people might think differently than me. It seems to be a Southern thing, although Texas isn’t really the South and there are debs from California to New York. When I explained the debutante ball to my roommate, a Columbian girl named Beatriz during that summer, she thought it was absurd, and I hadn’t even begun to explain the importance of the Texas Dip to her. My explanation falling on deaf ears, she just couldn’t get over the common discernment that debutantes were about marrying off daughters, about keeping classes separate, and about simply throwing parties.  Boy, was she was wrong.

The Debutante Ball is about service. The children helped by the Helping Hand Home are in great need of love, therapy, friendship, and assistance. The legacy of Helping Hand Home has changed many children’s lives. My mother completed the first adoption for the Helping Hand Home, a great accomplishment for the charity and a wonderful, life-changing event for the child. As a debutante, I continued her legacy, trying my best to change not even the life, but just the challenging day of a few children at Helping Hand Home. The purpose of the ball has always been to bring awareness to service and charity, even if it means giving time, not money, through volunteering at the Home, and representing the Homes’ virtues through participation in the ball. The service that the Home does for children in the Austin community is unmatched.

While some people may criticize the debutante rite of passage as archaic, that is why part of me loved it.  There is a sense of old world charm and magic in the air, something romantic seeps through and becomes exciting when you step onto the stage. A good friend of mine from high school was an escort at the same time I was a debutante, and when they announced his name, the emcee noted that the boy’s parents had met at the ball, and 22 years later, their own son was an escort himself. A full circle moment? You bet.

When I received my invitation letter from the Home, the first thing I thought was that I had to get a gown. The second thing was the dread I felt at the idea of performing the infamous Texas Dip on stage in front of all my friends, all my parents’ friends, a few strangers, and a bevy of photographers. I still wonder if my mom really believed me or just chose to pretend to believe me when I told her I would wear my debutante dress to my real wedding – I was desperate for this dress, and I pulled out bargaining tools. The first dress I ever tried on at a bridal store turned out to be the dress in which I did my Texas Dip. I was in Heaven.

We debutantes had our first bow practice right before we went off to our freshman year of college. The looks on all of our faces were looks of hesitance and skepticism, as we all slowly, and awkwardly, followed our Texas Dip tutor (yes, there actually is such a person) as she gracefully descended to the floor like a wilting rose. My first attempt was nothing like a wilting rose, but instead like bulldozed house falling upon the earth. Afterwards, the room was abuzz of girls whispering about how to cheat the bow. I mean, really. To cheat or not to cheat was a large debate amongst us debs. Being that we wore large, puffy skirts, nobody could see if our legs did the actual process of the bow, or if we were instead bending both of our legs for an easy fall and rise. My best friend and I decided that it was wrong to cheat, that we would be so much more proud if we bent our legs and slowly shrunk to the floor, completely level and unfaltering. A lofty goal indeed that would take practice, practice, practice.

So I began to practice all year. In my dorm room I taught my sorority sisters how to do it despite their complaints that it was not only absurd, but also difficult, to bow that way. I practiced in front of my TV at home, with my 5-year-old cousins mimicking me from behind. I even practiced in the library at school before the night of my debut.

Despite the fear that I had, and the anxiety leading up to the stage, doing my Texas Dip was incredibly rewarding, and even fun. As the song Moon River started to play, I stretched my arms outright, maintained good posture, and spread my arms out to the side. I bent my knee, pointed my toe, and drew a circle along the floor, lowering my body to the ground as I did so, and then once I was half-kneeling on the stage, I circled my body, head first, maintaining eye contact, then neck down, then back bent, and bowed to Austin. I was proud, and still am, of that. I am proud of my battle wounds – I have my scars of the top of my feet from practicing the Dip on a rug. I have scars on the soles of my feet from dancing barefoot right after a party-goer dropped a crystal glass on the dance floor, and yes, I have the most beautiful wedding dress, stained with red wine along the left side from an over-zealous hug from my uncle.

The ball brought me joy, even afterwards. Things I will never regret happened, like my friends from college asking if I had been married, because I was in a wedding dress, photographed with young men in tuxedos. Bless their hearts. The photographers managed to take action shots of debutantes through every step of the Texas Dip, and to my mothers dismay, my photographs were tinted by my escort’s face, a look of absolute fear and worry, as he stared down at me while I dipped. Needless to say, the photographs my mother hung of my bow get a big laugh from my family and friends. After the requisite father-daughter dance, which is nothing sort of magical, my grandfather took my hand and waltzed with me for a song. We were photographed, and in the newspaper we were labeled as “Madeline and her father”, also much to my mother’s surprise, because my grandfather is 25 years her senior, and also her father.

The very best part of it all? Debutante balls, like the Helping Hand Ball, install a sense of service and charity in Austin area youth from an early age, so that a legacy of helping others is left. Not only was the ball a philanthropic experience, but also an unforgettable one. This past year I attended the ball again to watch a close family friend do her Texas Dip. I went backstage before portraits were taken, and helped her get dressed. The buttons on her dress were so delicate, yet difficult, that I used pliers to button every single tiny button from her back to the bottom of her dress’s train.

Three years later, observing the debutantes, and not bowing myself, I still hold dearly the things I learned from that ball. Like the buttons on my friend’s dress, debutantes are strong, volunteering and changing lives, but also delicate, examples of feminine charm and kindness through grace.  That ball lead me into young adulthood with a swift and invigorating process of charity, leadership, and growth, yet I still resist the urge to put my white gown back on, traipse around my house in it, and practice the Texas Dip in front of my mirror. Maybe I’ll do that sometime in the future.

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