Modern Dance

The dances have baroque names like “Les Visites” and “La Victoria,” and the dancers who perform them—five groups of four couples—have been practicing once a week for the past three months at a small ballroom on the Upper East Side. Tonight, the women are wearing matching tiaras, long evening gloves, and eggshell gowns with hoop skirts; the men, white tie, tails, and gloves. They curtsy, bow, touch palms, and at one point form the shape of five windmills swirling together under the crystal chandeliers of the Plaza hotel’s Grand Ballroom. One dancer, a prim-looking, dark-haired graduate student in the Columbia writing program with a tenuous grip on her hoop skirt, murmurs softly: “I think I need a drink.”

The quadrille is an eighteenth-century European court dance that was all the rage in New York City society a little over a century ago. It was revived in 1961 as the centerpiece for a seriously formal white-tie affair held every winter, one of the more demanding of the whirlwind of winter and spring balls in the city hosted, for the most part, by creaky genealogical organizations. Of the two dozen or so events in the society-ball season, the Scottish Ball, which appeared on an episode of Sex and the City, is considered the most athletic. The Colonial Ball is rumored to be the most exclusive. But the Quadrille, hosted by the Germanistic Society of America, is notable because it is more than just a ball; it also serves as a ten-week finishing school and match-making scene for about 40 single professionals in their twenties and thirties somewhat loosely referred to as debs.

Once a hyperexclusive event for the offspring of Gotham’s well-to-do—including Rothschilds and Gimbels—the Quadrille is now a place where old money, new money, and not-all-that-much-money merge, where paralegal Allison Bruno, the electronica-loving daughter of a New Jersey trucking-company owner and a graduate of the University of Florida, can mingle with the distinguished-looking Marc Winter, the mop-haired son of an investment banker who returned this fall from a post–Johns Hopkins stint in Europe before launching his career in publishing.

“For one night,” says Bruno, who lives with her father in Cedar Grove, “you don’t feel like yourself.”

“The Quadrille is the story of what has happened to New York society,” notes one former debutante, a New York designer who speaks with a clipped British accent. “It’s gone through a major change. But the structure is still there.”

“It’s high society,” explains former deb Tara Weaver, the 27-year-old executive assistant at a New York cosmetics firm, who spent much of this season helping recruit new blood. “But it’s really down-to-earth.”

Certainly, for today’s a-list socialites—the Sykeses, the Hiltons, the Lauders—the Quadrille is hardly a blip on the social radar. For them, the action is at museum fund-raisers and fashion parties, events where bumping into P. Diddy offers more social cred than meeting a well-mannered fellow who knows how to do the Argentine tango. If this is Edith Wharton territory fast-forwarded 80 years, Lily Bart would have met a very different fate. In fact, she might have been recruited because the children of the true elite have gone clubbing. And when members brag of a recent brand-name participant, it’s Jeff Bezos—before his tech-boom success.

Recently, to attract recruits—who are asked to join by former debs or committee members—Quadrille organizers have been playing up the matchmaking benefits, boasting that more than 50 couples have met and married through their ball over its 43 years. During a midtown cocktail reception organized as a preseason recruiting tool, potential debs were told that the night of the ball would be like a “hot date with a very hot person.” Though the date comes at a price: Entry into the dance is $230, and participants pay around $125 for use of the outfits, provided by the organization, that they’ll wear that night.

“They come in as jaded singles. They come out with a whole new attitude,” says committee member Carole Haarmann Acunto, a petite 52-year-old blonde who owns a small trade-publishing firm in Westchester. “We encourage the gentlemen to be gentlemen and the ladies to be ladies. It’s like learning a second language.” For years, Acunto has served as a den mother of sorts to the debs, showing up at almost every one of the ten pre-ball rehearsals and occupying herself with issues of taste and decorum. “This hearkens back to a time when good manners were encouraged,” she says.

“To be a member of the Quadrille, you have to be a certain kind of person: young, highly educated, sociable, ambitious,” explains Logan Hennessey, a former deb who now serves on the ball’s junior committee, and who splits her time between her brother’s Upper East Side apartment and the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where she’s a law student. Like Hennessey, many of the participants are products of top-ranked schools—Princeton, Columbia, Mount Holyoke—who have flocked to the city for high-paying jobs and a taste of the high life: “We have different backgrounds. But we have that in common.”

The Quadrille was founded in 1961 by the late Ina Kesseler, the wife of a New York doctor who favored Chanel suits and Pappagallos. Originally, the ball raised money for Americans studying in Germany (it now also raises money for Germans studying here) and was intended as an exclusive matchmaking vehicle for the children of wealthy German families. The emphasis on propriety—something Kesseler was famous for—was there from the beginning. Kesseler never wore pants and would scold male debs for not buttoning their jackets at rehearsals, and women for showing up in inappropriate footwear.

One time, she apparently went right up to a dancer and balked at her red shoes, recalls Chad Keinanen, a former deb with high cheekbones and a prep-school haircut who now co-chairs the junior committee. “She said, ‘That is not appropriate for a young lady, and you will not wear those to rehearsal again.’ ”

If Kesseler’s rules appear quaint in the twenty-first century, those taking part in the Quadrille consider them more important than ever. As Keinanen, a 33-year-old self-proclaimed purist (who has worked in financial services but is currently unemployed), puts it: “It drives me crazy when I go to my events and people are underdressed.”

At this year’s first rehearsal, new recruits in the required rehearsal garb—long skirts for the ladies, jackets and ties for the gentlemen—practiced a few of the beginning steps while former debs roamed the dance floor looking for problems. Jessa Krick, a tall brunette with stellar posture, inspected a circle of female dancers as each one nervously demonstrated a single still-unpolished curtsy.

“Keep it low,” Krick, who is the collections assistant at the Met’s Costume Institute, told one blushing dancer.

“Too high,” she told another.

“That’s not straight enough.”

“This is a tiny world of values and manners,” mused Acunto, surveying the scene. “None of the other balls do what we do.”

At 3 p.m. the day of the ball, half a dozen debs are waiting in the burgundy-draped confines of a Plaza conference room, arms raised, as former debs pull on their bodices, then lace them up. A reproduction of a rococo fresco on the wall behind them depicts eighteenth-century lovers picnicking on a grassy plain.

“Can you breathe?” a bodice-lacer asks a deb.

“Breathing is highly overrated,” another deb calls from across the room.

Some debs, like Hennessey, had spent their morning in swivel chairs at Frédéric Fekkai. Others, like Jessi Wilson—an unemployed writer from Baltimore, who says her parents are less ball than “barbecue” (her father’s favorite dance is the electric slide)—did their hair themselves. “I didn’t have money to blow on that,” says Wilson, a Princeton graduate who is fluent in Russian. She joined the Quadrille, she says chirpily, in part because she loved the idea of wearing a tiara. “When we heard about it, we were like, ‘Oh, my God, a tiara!’ ”

Bruno, the New Jersey paralegal, has pulled her cropped hair up with dozens of bobby pins—a look that is more hip-hop than high society. Eyeing her, two ball organizers huddle against a portable dress rack, debating how to proceed. It needs to be redone, she is told. Bobby pins are not ball-appropriate.

An hour later, Bruno can be spotted in a chair in the corner with Acunto blow-drying her short curls. Soon, her cherubic face is crowned by a halo of neat ringlets. “I guess it had to be a certain way,” she notes, unfazed. “I knew they were really strict about that sort of thing.”

By 11 p.m. that evening, after dinner has been served and the debs have mingled with the bejeweled flock of guests—minor German dignitaries, Upper East Side socialites—they gather for their big moment. They line up backstage at the Grand Ballroom, awaiting their turn to walk out into the spotlight and be formally presented. A debonaire salt-and-pepper-haired caller sonorously announces each of their names as the women hold perilously to their partners’ arms and drop into a deep (and well-rehearsed) curtsy. The orchestra plays music from a nineteenth-century French opera, and the debs descend the staircase and prepare to move into their routine.

As the 25-minute performance draws to a close, the caller asks former debs to join the dancers in a waltz. Now that the dance floor is packed, a wave of relief passes over the new crop of debs. Most move quickly off in search of a well-earned gin-and-tonic (the higher-ups discourage drinking before the grand finale), discarding their gloves and exchanging giddy smiles.

Some debs confess that they found the evening’s formality daunting. “This is scarily romantic,” declares Roger Wu, the 25-year-old son of Taiwanese chemists who describes himself as an actor-model. The fanciest thing he’d been to before this ball, Wu says, was his New Jersey prom. “It reminds me of a wedding. If my parents were there, they would have been like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”

But others, like Mi-Ae Hur, a 27-year-old fund-raiser who grew up in Korea before attending Concord Academy, then Barnard, says it is precisely this old-school formality that appeals to her. “It was like, Wow: I’m being treated like a lady.”

And for the Quadrille diehards, the formality is nothing short of an aphrodisiac. “The night of the ball, everyone is at their most social and most attractive,” says Hennessey, who had a story-book romance with a dark-haired banker from Connecticut last season. “At the end of the ball, we danced and then we sat down on a Plaza sofa in front of an embossed mirror and he asked me if he could call me. And he did. And we dated for five months. I have this great photo of us looking very period, everyone looking young and gorgeous.”

“It’s all extremely romantic,” says former deb Eric Hildenbrand, a 31-year-old who dated a German model he met on the Quadrille dance floor. “When you think of where people meet, you think of work or a bar. You can’t flirt at work. This almost gives you a license to flirt. They encourage you to do it. You don’t have to be bashful.”

“In the seventeenth century, it was during these dances that young people were probably setting up their trysts,” adds Keinanen, who is now dating an executive recruiter from Islip. “You know, whispering to each other, ‘Meet me in the garden.’ ”

To Acunto, who is married to a handsome classical-music scholar who reads Greek and Latin and knows how to waltz, the beauty of the Quadrille really is all romance. “Meeting people in New York is hard,” she remarks. “And the bar scene stinks.”

Modern Dance