RICHMOND, Va. – Just 30 minutes before the Phi Beta Sigma “beautillion” starts, a year of planning for the boys’ glittering debutant ball threatens to unravel: What should be a trio of white-gowned female escorts is only a duo. That could mean one “beau” won’t have a partner for the intricate ballroom dance the boys have practiced for weeks. “I think it’s gonna turn out OK,” organizer Elmer Seay Jr. says.
There’s more at stake than a fancy dance. The beaus in white tails and glinting white shoes are young black men, honor roll students bound for college. Seay has challenged statistics showing young black males battling grim rates of joblessness, poverty and unintended fatherhood. He has arranged career forums and corralled the teens into dance classes and etiquette lessons. Most important, he and his fraternity brothers have offered genuine concern for their future. By evening’s end, beaus Jarratt Day, Mark Turner II and Kevin Wyatt will emerge as upright, goal-oriented men.
The Links, a Washington-based social group for affluent black women, has spent 50 years hosting black-aimed coming-out functions — cotillions for girls and increasingly popular beautillions for boys as young as 9.
‘Fed up’ with media portrayals
“African-Americans weren’t permitted to participate in the cotillions that were held mainly by white, aristocratic social clubs,” explains Janet Walker, head of The Links. Today, these events draw black parents seeking opportunities to highlight the good in their sons. “A lot of people are just fed up with the way that black men are portrayed in the media,” Walker says. In addition, beautillion participants get scholarships, and contacts.
“If you want to go to fraternities or college and stuff, this is a step,” says 17-year-old Julian Alford, who is eyeing the University of Virginia. In a studio, Kevin Wyatt claps and tumbles to African music as the beaus practice a celebratory dance. There’s plenty to celebrate. For starters, no more stiff ballroom moves. “The type of dancing we were doing? Boring, I’m not going to lie to you,” the 17-year-old says after practice.
His ball cap tilted to the side, a tiny diamond dotting his ear, Wyatt is an academic-minded baseball player who volunteers with children. But he worries about his future. “I fear that I’m going to give up and not keep going,” he says, as the studio clears.