By Janis Fontaine
Hair bows fly, ties flutter and laughter resonates off the windows overlooking the ocean as dozens of kids follow instructor Pam Casanave and her assistant Grigol Kranz in basic dance steps.
The ladies are in white gloves and party dresses in shades of rose from blush pink to blood red. The gentlemen wear suit jackets and ties. As they struggle to learn steps and avoid each other’s toes, Casanave and Kranz move between them, gliding and smiling.
When they let the kids loose for a game of “musical hearts,” they twirl and bop with abandon.This is the dance portion of cotillion, a two-hour class that combines etiquette advice and dance instruction to build social skills and enforce gracious behavior.
The class, 60 kids from first to 10th grades, meets about 10 times between September and May at St. Andrews Club in Gulf Stream. Casanave, a professional dancer, choreographer and instructor from Boca Raton, started the cotillion classes through her company, Dance With Pam, last year with the encouragement of local moms.
Casanave is well-known in the dance community. She and her husband, Jean-Marc Casanave, owned Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Boca before he died in 2016.
Casanave continued to dance, choreograph and teach at her own school while focusing her talents on the annual Boca’s Ballroom Battle, which pairs amateurs with professionals to raise money for the George Snow Scholarship Fund. She helped grow the event into a huge success.
Casanave coached Literacy Coalition CEO Kristin Calder when she competed, and when Calder’s kids, Harrison, 16, and Caroline, 12, aged out of their cotillion classes after the eighth grade, Calder suggested Casanave and cotillion might be a perfect fit.
Casanave came up with a curriculum and hit the ground running in 3-inch heels last year.
For teaching purposes, the kids are split into two groups, grades 1-5 and 6-10, and each session carries an etiquette topic. For Valentine’s week, the topic was “magic words”: please, thank you, I’m sorry, excuse me, may I, and hello.
“Introductions show we’re friendly and courteous,” Casanave says.
Good manners open doors that even the best education cannot by using the universal principles of kindness, politeness and grace. “Parents want to raise kind and compassionate children, and manners serve us very well,” she says.
Dancing with actual touching takes a little getting used to, but dance’s similarity to sports helps.
Kranz, a ballroom dancer and personal trainer, coaches them: Stay loose, bend your knees, finish the movement, pay attention to your partner.
The kids represent different schools — Saint Andrew’s, Gulf Stream and Oxbridge — which they like. Margaux Bonutti, 12, goes to Gulf Stream and is more comfortable in cleats on the soccer field, but really enjoys the dance lessons. Her 15-year-old brother, Marc, who goes to Oxbridge and is interested in aviation, says, “At first I was hesitant about coming to class, but now I appreciate the things they’re teaching us and I look forward to it.”
Caroline Calder loves music and theater, so she can’t learn enough dance, and Gracie Robinson, 12, who rides horses three times a week, thinks cotillion is bringing out her personality. Among the younger kids, the attention span is shorter, but the lessons are there. Amelia Grandic, 7, in a sequined top and fuchsia tulle tutu, nibbles cookies post-dance and stops talking about her guinea pig to offer this dance (and life) advice: “It helps if you follow the directions.”
But Amelia’s brother, Thatcher Grandic, 9, in his navy-blue blazer and no-nonsense glasses, sees the big picture. He says the purpose of good manners is to make others feel comfortable. He says good manners are about treating strangers like friends.
The Gulf Stream student, who likes math, is not sure what he wants to do when he gets older, but says, “I’d like to do something that helps the world.”
And that is the epitome of good manners.