Life Debutantes, organisers plan 2021 comeback after disappointment of COVID cancellations

Debutantes, organisers plan 2021 comeback after disappointment of COVID cancellations

A recent group of Mirboo North debutantes at a ball organised by Paula Calafiore. Photo: Paula Calafiore
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In teenagers’ wardrobes throughout Victoria, white gowns once destined to twirl and shimmer as the young women they were bought for danced at their debutante balls, instead hang unused – embellished reminders of just how far into our lives the pandemic has reached.

As COVID-19 restrictions were enforced, schools and community groups around Victoria and interstate had to abandon their plans for presentation balls this year, leaving thousands of students disappointed.

However, the easing of Victoria’s tough restrictions, especially in regional areas, has debutantes and organisers hopeful that the balls will be able to go ahead early next year.

The event, which can be traced back to about 1600 and stems from the tradition of presenting young noble women in the royal court for the first time, remains an unlikely fixture on the modern high-school calendar.

For some girls, this is an experience they plan for years in advance, dreaming of the white dress they will wear and carefully choosing a partner to stand alongside.

For others, including dance teachers and caterers, debutante balls mean business and the disruption to events has had an enormous economic impact on them.

Debutante hopes for second chance

While some girls are thrilled at the prospect of balls going ahead early next year, others are not so happy.

As most “deb” balls are held in year 11, the students who missed out this year will now have to juggle year 12 studies with the preparation that goes into the event, such as etiquette and dancing lessons.

Year 11 student Tea Van de Burgt hopes her debutante ball goes ahead next year, after it was cancelled this year. Photo: Tea Van De Burgt

Tea Van de Burgt, a year 11 student at Marist Sion College in Warragul in eastern Victoria, said her school’s event was now planned for next year, 12 months after it was initially scheduled.

“I know a few girls that actually aren’t going to do it next year, because they’ve got the dresses from someone else or borrowed them and had to give them back,” she said.

She said some debutantes’ partners were also dropping out due to the commitments of year 12, meaning that some young women will now be unable to participate in the event.

“We originally had maybe 20 girls that missed out and I think now we’re looking at more around the 40 mark of girls that might be missing out,” Ms Van de Burgt said.

She said that while she did not agree with the concept of bringing girls out to society, she was drawn to the event because of the challenge of learning the dances, and the memories she would make with her friends and family.

“My Nan did it and my Mum did it, they both have pictures of them in their dresses … I think that’s a really good memory to keep with me for the rest of my life,” she said.

‘We had our fingers crossed’

According to the Victorian government’s roadmap to reopening, regional Victoria will have to be at “COVID normal” before large gatherings are permitted.

Brisbane-born journalist and public speaker Nell Tritton as a debutante 100 years ago. Photo: Mrs Lavinia Tritton

Paula Calafiore, who helps organise the debutante ball in Mirboo North, in South Gippsland, alongside the local football and netball club, said she would do whatever was necessary to hold the ball early next year.

Her team was just a couple of weeks out from holding their ball this year when it had to be postponed.

“We were watching carefully, and we all had our fingers crossed that there weren’t going to be restrictions in place until we actually got through, but we didn’t make it,” Ms Calafiore said.

She said the initial cancellation caused a lot of disappointment.

“I often hear people say, as early as … year 7 or in year 8, that they’ve already chosen a deb partner … so it certainly has come with disappointment,” she said.

Ms Calafiore said the planning team had considered holding the event virtually or outdoors to meet government guidelines on gatherings.

“We’ve got time on our side,” she said, adding that a new date for next year had not been chosen yet “because I’d hate to go through all of this process again”.

Indigenous debutantes have been held since the 1950s.

History, one step at a time

In Australia, debutante balls have been held for well over a century, with many family photograph albums containing yellowing images of mothers and grandmothers in their finery at their own “coming out” balls.

Miranda Tapsell’s mother, Barbara, at her debutante ball. Photo: Miranda Tapsell

Celebrations of Aboriginal debutantes date back to the 1950s and continue today as a celebration of cultural pride.

Earlier this year, playwright and actor Nakkiah Lui and actor Miranda Tapsell released an Audible Original podcast called Debutante: Race, Resistance and Girl Power, based on interviews with young debutantes from around the world.

“I think it was really beautiful looking at these girls just glow at the thought of being at that ball and being part of it,” Tapsell told 7.30 at the time.

“Not only was it a time for them to be proud of who they were, it was also a time for them to be proud of the community.”

Keen to get back on the dance floor

For choreographer and dance instructor Rhonda McDonald, presentation balls are her full-time job.

Warragul student Tea Van de Burgt will be partnered by her friend Darcy if her school’s ball goes ahead next year. Photo: Tea Van De Burgt

“From March, I’ve had no work … usually this time of year I’m absolutely flat out,” Ms McDonald said.

She has been instructing and choreographing debutante balls for 46 years in Gippsland, training students from between nine and 11 schools a year.

Besides running the training sessions before the ball, she also attends on the night to help with the final rehearsal and music.

“The memories that are created for them, that’s the best part of the night, when it all comes together,” she said.

Ms McDonald does not think it would be possible to run a socially distanced presentation ball because, by their very nature, the balls involve dancing.

“Because dancing is contact … we can’t keep social distancing in a deb ball because you’re dancing with a partner,” she said.

Ms McDonald is committed to seeing this and next year’s cohorts of year 11 students through the training process in 2021 if restrictions allow.

“That’s what we’ve sort of put into place for some of the schools — that we will be able to double-up if that’s what we’ve got to do,” Ms McDonald said.