‘Debutante balls’ often conjure visions of an expensive party for privileged youth, but the tradition actually has deep roots in faith and civic responsibility worth cherishing in today’s culture.
Among the eight hundred invited guests, in addition to the debutantes were also artists, politicians and representatives of European aristocratic families. Applause seemed to never end. From the left: Célia de Frotté and Michał Bylicki, Oktawia Bylicka and Krzysztof Janiszewski, Laetitia Devoud and Jan Noszczyk, Hanna Rozwadowska and Michał Czartoryski, Anna Tarnowska and Grzegorz Zielonka. J. Maciej Goliszewski | Epoka
If you’ve ever wondered what goes on at a debutante ball, a particular “rite of passage” reserved for society’s elite and privileged, then get ready to indulge yourself for an insider’s look at this stunning occasion. To get to the heart of this event, we travel to Poland for a rare access into this world most of us know nothing about. We discovered that it is so much more than just looking beautiful and keeping your back straight; it’s about young women, and in this case young men, coming together to join the adult world in grace, style, but most importantly, faith. Faith in God and faith for their future society in which they have a responsibility to be positive, active participants.
How did it get started?
Jolanta Mycielska, a Polish countess living in Italy, is a member of the Polish Association of Knights of Malta, which is involved in charitable activities. She emigrated from then-Communist Poland in the early ’70s. “When in 1989 Poland regained its independence, we could finally start operations/projects in the country. We were looking for projects that would allow us to raise funding for our operations. I proposed the idea of a debutante ball to our then-president of the association, Juliusz Ostrowski, a Polish count, and I offered to organize it. The formula turned out to work,” says Countess Mycielska.
Who gets invited?
The participants receive an invitation from Countess Mycielska. With room for just 32 pairs, the Polish version of the ball is unusual in that the debutants also include young men, who in other countries normally just assist. “We offer equal opportunity,” laughs the Countess. “I look for the candidates in environments of culture, science, Maltese families, aristocratic families, nobility, in Poland and in Polish communities abroad. The ladies should be at least seventeen but not more than twenty-four years old. The gentlemen should be between eighteen and twenty-nine years old.”
“Before the invitations are sent, I try to establish personal contact with the parents and the debutantes. It is important, this is how we get to know each other and we know what to expect from each other. This is how the newcomers learn that in addition to learning to dance, they will talk about manners, values, sensitivity and responsibility for themselves and others,” notes the Countess.
A few of the lucky attendees
The 64 debutantes, speaking different languages from different cultures, are unified by their faith. They’re guided by their Christian values and optimism toward the world and its people, which they were able to share with each other during the World Youth Days in Krakow this past summer. They often come from families that know each other very well. “It’s mostly my distant cousins,” laughs Staś Szufa, a 22-year-old computer science student at the prestigious Jagiellonian University, who feels that the debutants are “all equally well brought up and have the same manners.”
Laetitia Devoud, a 19-year-old management student at Exeter University in England, lived in Warsaw for the first 13 years of her life, before her family then moved to Paris. Laetitia has Polish-French-Vietnamese roots. Her great-grandfather was one of the few Catholic mandarins, a presidential candidate, and her great-grandmother was a cousin of the last empress of Vietnam. Laetitia’s grandmother, Marie Thérèse Tran Thi Lai married Stefan Wilkanowicz, a Polish Catholic intellectual who worked with Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), and they settled in Poland. Laetitia’s mother is Marzena Wilkanowicz-Devoud, who was the editor of the Polish edition of ELLE Magazine for many years and is now international editorial director of For Her. On Laetitia’s father’s side, businessman and publisher Guillaume Devoud, she has French-British noble roots. She is beautiful, with impeccable manners, and full of empathy—the latter being especially helpful during training for the ball.
Then there’s Christian Porowski, an engineer from Montreal. “I have a feeling I’m the oldest here,” he laughs. “At home and with my grandparents I always speak Polish,” he declares in beautiful fluent Polish. Back in Montreal he loves keeping up with the Polish community playing on a Polish soccer team, called the White Eagles, so he is delighted to be here for this great occasion.
Debutante Oktawia Bylicka, native to Poland, is a 19-year-old gardening student and the youngest of eight children. A previous Girl Scout, Octavia keeps herself busy. In her spare time (“I don’t have a lot of free time!” she says) Octavia plays musical instruments or sews, making her own dresses, and recently sewing a cover for her favorite ukulele. The ball is a great occasion for these like-minded young adults to share not only a dance, but their views on what is going on in the world today.
The debutants arrive in the Polish capital of Warsaw two weeks before the ball. “Aside from daily intensive dance lessons, the debutants receive mini lectures on subjects such as etiquette, civil responsibility or volunteerism,” explains the Countess. The young people live in the homes of fellow debutantes living in Warsaw in the lead-up to the ball.
Arriving from Paris, Laetitia meets up with Christian and the two debutantes find their way to the Rościszewski family, where a young 20-year-old Kajetan is making his debut. As Laetitia says, “We are among friends!” This is just as well as the next two weeks are going to be pretty grueling!
The most demanding: the waltz
Dance figures and arrangements in the mazurka were complicated. The pair in the middle: Weronika Wielkopolska-Fonfara and Jan Szymborski. Maciej Goliszewski | Agencja Epoka
For two weeks, from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m., the debutantes will rehearse three dance routines, which until the ball must remain a closely-guarded secret. However, among them is the obligatory, and difficult to pull off, Viennese waltz. For young people, it’s not so easy—not being quite their usual clubbing style! The selection of partners (according to height) and setting them in the right order takes many hours. Sometimes partners have to be changed due to either lack of communication or rhythm, or on the contrary, they are both doing so well that it’s important to help out a different pair.
Their daily workouts happen at a 100-year-old neo-baroque and neo-rococo building. One hour of warm-ups, stretching, and exercise is followed by the rehearsal: they go through the steps, routines, repeat, start from the top. The choreographer and his assistants watch each pair carefully. The pairs repeat the routines ad-nauseam. When finally it’s time for a break, they all fall to the floor along the walls and fall asleep next to one another.
“The first day mostly boys were complaining about problems with backs, hips or knees,” says Artur Dobrzanski, a great Polish choreographer, who along with his assistants undertook the preparation of the group for the ball. “Some kids were ready to give up after the first few days, but over time I saw them get into the training sessions. I saw the satisfaction they got from making progress, since it was a truly difficult lineup. After one week no one was complaining and everyone wanted to be the marymoncka (male figure in the mazurka, a Polish folk dance.) I consider that great success,” he says. He is impatient, making them repeat each element of the routine. Suddenly he stops, upset, raising his voice. “I’m leaving, figure it out on your own!” he yells. All apologize and ask him to stay, promising they’ll do better!
But “there are moments of funny goofing off,” admits Dobrzanski. “While doing push-ups the boys suddenly started singing John Lennon’s Imagine, because the piano player was playing it. That was a beautiful moment. This collective and spontaneous spirit rising through a song,” says Dobrzanski.
The theme: The Little Prince & his rose
Jaś Mycielski as the Little Prince was the star of the freeform dance routine. Maciej Goliszewski | Agencja Epoka
“And what routine are they rehearsing exactly? I decided to tell a story in this short performance. Mainly about love, the search for and different shades of it,” says the choreographer, referring to the symbol of this year’s ball: the rose. “The queen of flowers not only will be an accessory to hairdos, ball gowns or scenography,” Jolanta Mycielska says. “We all remember the Little Prince with his ever-present red rose—from the global bestseller The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. And the most important words he said: ‘You are responsible for what you have tamed.’”
The theme of The Little Prince is the culminating point of this year’s choreography. “In front of him, in the mazurka, the ladies practically do not dance with their partners,” says Artur Dobrzanski. “They constantly flee to other young men, to each other, and groups of other dancers. In the waltz, they pick their partners by giving them a rose, and they dance with them to the end. There is room for romanticism, elation, fun, innocence, but also flirtation. Gentlemen are caring and gallant, the ladies sensual and confident. The interwoven Little Prince impression stresses romanticism and the idea of traditionally understood love.”
A break, perhaps?
Waiting for the hairdos. The debutantes had their hair intricately braided or pinned in fantastic updos by a well known hair stylist Jaga Hupało. Maciej Goliszewski | Agencja Epoka
During breaks in rehearsals there are fittings of gowns and tailcoats. The gowns are designed by the well-known costume designer Dorota Roqueplo. They are white, classic, with a tea rose shaded bow, but each girl has a different neckline. Details are important: a cut-out in the back, a ruffle on the arm or by the bosom. Although after one week of rehearsals many dresses need to be taken in, as the dancers are losing weight.
After a quick lunch, more training. Evenings are for meetings. Joanna Mycielska explains “During these two weeks the evenings are busy with mini-lectures about proper behavior, essentially savoir-vivre, civic responsibility, getting involved in volunteerism. They eat dinner together, that’s another occasion for discussion. The debutants from other countries deepen their knowledge about the country and awareness of Polish roots and traditions.”
There seems little room for relaxation. Although Laetitia doesn’t have problems with the waltz, maybe because she attended ballet lessons as a child, her partner, Jan Noszczyk, would probably prefer a different dance. They don’t give up, instead they patiently practice the steps, motivate each other. “It’s hard,” Laetitia says diplomatically. “But we are very sensitive to each other, we see who is tired, who needs a massage, or a longer nap.” They dance, but also talk a lot. About what? “About rehearsals, our student life, we compare the differences arising from culture, location, local traditions. I think we are all optimists and we appreciate every good moment spent together. When we talk in between dances, I noticed we don’t discuss work, career or another direction of studies,” says Laetitia.
Oktawia adds that they also talk about politics. “But we all differ in our views of the world, future, politics. And in the meantime we acknowledge the current topics,” she laughs. When rehearsal is over, when some of the debutantes are packing up, or are just resting on the floor, one of the boys spontaneously grabs Octawia to waltz. Others follow. It’s obvious that Octawia is well liked. She talks of her attitude, compared to most of her friends. “I noticed that I have a different attitude towards some issues than most of my friends.” What is important? “Faith, thinking of others, the society.”
Staś Szufa talks about the same–faith, respect. What is he proud of? “That’s a difficult question,” he smiles and ponders. “I think it’s important to develop yourself, and it’s not just about education … I am interested in growing in all directions. How do I imagine my future? Family, a large family, is really important to me. I know it is not really in fashion these days, that institution is collapsing. But I would like to have two daughters and two sons.”
Laure-Hélène de Charette de la Contrie and Stanisław Szufa, Mark Goda in the striped shirt. Maciej Goliszewski | Agencja Epoka
Finally … the ball
The dress rehearsal takes place in the modern ballroom of the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in Warsaw. On the polished floor, young men are almost fully dressed, a few dancing in tailcoats and shorts. Pants needed last minute taking in. A few gowns are also not ready, something needs to be added, something pinned. Countess Mycielska and Dorota Roqueplo sit on the stage. Artur Dobrzański leads the rehearsal; he’s nervous and cannot stand still. “Now there is applause and don’t you dare move!!” he shouts theatrically. “Not a tremor!”
The tension is palpable, but so is the confidence that all will go well. Time to fix makeup and hairstyles, prepared by the best Polish stylist, Jaga Hupało, and her team. She arranges their hair in feminine, sensual updos, each with a rose, to fit the theme.
The guests gather in the foyer, with the guest of honor among them: Princesse Béatrice de Bourbon des Deux Siciles. She is wearing a fantastic creation with a rose motif. “I accepted the invitation for the ball with great emotion. I had two reasons for coming: the ball is an important part of life for the debutantes, who enter the adult world in the atmosphere of love, and most of all, Poland filled my childhood with happiness and nostalgia of my grandmother Princess Karolina de Bourbon des deux Siciles, née countess Zamoyska, who carried the image of the motherland deep in her heart,’” assured the princess.
Countess Mycielska and Maria Dominika Belina Brzozowska (responsible for the International Youth Committee) greet everyone personally. The guests, all 800 of them, stand around a separate part of the room, where the debutants will dance. All the time there are enthusiastic shouts “Is that really you?! It’s been so long!” English is mixed with Polish and French.
Finally the debutantes enter. They do not resemble the tired, clumsy and uncoordinated dancers from the initial rehearsals. All are standing straight, smiling. Later they admit to having stage fright and nerves. “I imagined myself tripping on the scarf, which we had for the waltz, or making mistakes in the choreography. Luckily it didn’t happen, although I almost fell when the scarf got hooked on my heel during the so called windmill (a figure in the mazurka,)” remembers Laetitia.
At the end of the dance routine, there is no end to the applause, as the choreographer predicted. While parents can’t hide their tears, six young dancers chosen by Countess Mycielska approach the stage and ask the most important guests to dance.
Debutant Kajetan Rościszewski invites the Princess. Before Count Tarnowski, the President of the Polish Order of Malta, stands his granddaughter.
The moment gets longer … everyone freezes. He does not refuse, although he cannot put down his cane due to a bad leg. It is the most beautiful waltz of the evening, and not only a lesson in good manners, but also great class.
The need for a ball in today’s society
According to Countess Mycielska, there are many reasons why such a traditional event is still relevant in today’s society.
At the end of the dress rehearsal Countess Mycielska thanks everyone and gives last minute advice. Piotr Targosz | Epoka
To nurture and pass from generation to generation the art of human relations and relationships: “While it is widely accepted that a generation is replaced every twenty/twenty five years, the constantly accelerated pace of life and the incredible progress of technology and electronics makes the “logistic” generations change much faster,” explains the Countess. The ball provides an opportunity to reinforce the importance of human behavior and interaction.
Creating a positive outlook for the future: “The meetings and having fun together are an opportunity for deeper reflections about the daily ‘good vs evil’ struggle. These shared experiences become helpful in the shaping the positive attitudes among young people, their future families, and circles in which they will live. It is a good ‘perpetum mobile’,” explains Jolanta Mycielska.
Ensuring future generations of debutantes: The countess calls the debutants ‘her battalion.’ She knows that all it takes is to say “I was a debutant/debutante,” and the doors will open. Debutantes become friends, sometimes fall in love. There are already several married couples among former debutantes. The next generation is already born, certainly future debutantes as well.
Becoming an adult is a significant event: “For every young person the threshold of maturity should be an important event,” she says. “Regardless of where and how it happens, it would be nice if that event is also noticed by parents and the community they live in … Entering adulthood is special and should remain in their memory as a beautiful experience. That’s why those two weeks spent together are so important. They realize that they lived through something important, discovered values, sometimes those they’ve neglected. It is time for building a community of young, smart, wise people. I hope that they will enter life with equal fervor and that not only career, money or success will be important to them …”
The impact of good behavior in society: “I notice that behavior not only has an impact on that one person but also the environment surrounding that person. Respect for oneself becomes respect for others, a smile invites a smile. Behavior is in itself a value that should be respected, it should be a ‘second skin’ in our daily life, not just once in a while. To ignore or downplay behavior opens a path to self destruction. Well brought-up people do not equal weak and boring, which is how today’s all-powerful media often portray them. In the name of what? But that’s another topic …
An exhausted countess?
The Countess has already “raised” over five hundred debutantes. “Organizing debutante balls and the International Maltese Weekend is first and foremost a part of my Maltese activity. The first ball took place in 1998 in Krakow. Since then they are held every two or three years. Although it was my idea and I am responsible for the entire project, I would never have been able to realize it without the help of a team which gives their time, energy and supports me. Which is why, to better organize the Ball, an organization “Pokolenia Pokolenia” (Generations Generations,) was founded. One of its statutory objectives is the organization of this event (more information on the www.pokolenia.org.) The Order of Malta is the official beneficiary.”
“I must admit that it is a great challenge to organize the ball, in addition to basically leaving my life for a few months, but … after eight editions I can confidently say that it is worth it.”
Finally, is the countess pleased with the debutantes?
“Am I pleased? I am thrilled!” she says.
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