A “big deal” or a “waste of time”? Within the ‘impossible’ tradition of debutant balls

At debutante balls held across Australia each year, girls wear long white dresses and introduce themselves to their communities.

Supporters say these balls give young women a chance to shine, while critics say they’re sexist and outdated.

So why are deb balls still a thing?

Picture it: It’s early on a Friday night and you’re in a large, modern function center.

In the room are hundreds of well-dressed guests with glasses of wine and chatting in hushed tones.

At the top of an imposing Y-shaped staircase is a young woman in a long white dress.

COVID meant teenager Jemma Borcich had to wait to participate in a debutante ball. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

It looks like a scene that could be from a perfect wedding.

But this is a different kind of dreamy moment for Melbourne teenager Jemma Borcich.

After many delays due to COVID, she is finally at her homecoming dance.

Ballmates Reid and Jemma pose for official photos. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

“It’s very special to me because I know a lot of people can’t do something like that,” he says.

“A lot of people don’t even know what a rookie ball is.”

These balls have a long history, beginning hundreds of years ago in England as a way for wealthy young women to make their debut in high society.

Think opulent ballrooms and stolen glances like in the Bridgerton series.

While times have certainly changed, deb balls, as they are more commonly known, have not only endured but have gained popularity in many parts of the world.

A dress is strung before the debutante balls begin. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica) A bag of gold and a phone for the debutante ball. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

At Taylors Lakes in Melbourne’s outer west, Jemma is one of 10 girls taking part in her debutant ball.

The debutantes and their partners have spent weeks together taking dance lessons.

Spectators rented limousines for the special occasion. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

On the day of the prom, they arrive at the event center in a limousine before taking part in a professional photo shoot.

Young couples arrive at Taylors Lakes Event Centre. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Inside the event center is a final rehearsal as organizer Lynne Rizzoli deals with last-minute costume and gown emergencies.

All this before each young couple enters the room.

As Jemma and her partner Reid Burgoyne walk down the stairs, an MC reads them a short biography, explaining their future goals.

Lynne Rizzoli organizes debate dances that are attended by thousands of people each year. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

The audience laughs as the MC announces that Jemma’s goal is to marry a rich man.

Like Jemma, many of the teenagers write cheerful responses: getting rich is a bit of a theme.

As each couple enters the room, parents and grandparents hold their phones in the air taking pictures, while friends stand cheering, clapping and pumping their fists.

Loud applause greets each pair. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica) The debutantes stand proud after being officially introduced. (ABC News: Elise Kinsella)

Lynne says it’s a bit of a recent fad.

“At the moment it’s a matter of seeing who can get the most joy when they first go out,” he explains.

“I’m not a big fan of that because I think every couple deserves a cheer and a round of applause.”

In some dances he has to fix things.

“Sometimes we have to pull it back and ask people and families to tone it down a little bit because it’s not a football game, it’s rookie ball.”

Another recent trend that Lynne finds somewhat inexplicable is girls wearing sneakers under their dresses.

Modern trends are creeping into deb balls despite the fact that the procedures are steeped in hundreds of years of tradition. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

“The other big thing they do now is swap socks with their partners so they wear weird matching socks for whatever reason,” he says.

More and more, youngsters are adding modern twists to deb ball conventions. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Although Lynne may not fully understand it, she knows that these little quirks are ways that young people are changing and modernizing an old tradition.

It’s something that’s important to Lynne as well.

In the dances that he organizes, the dances that the young couples perform for their guests have always been very important and go far beyond the traditional waltz that is usually seen at these events.

That’s why Lynne believes her balls have a huge following.

“Because our balls are interesting, fun, not repetitive, not boring, we are very lucky to get a good audience,” he says.

Posing with friends is part of the fun of the night. (Photographer: Jemma Borcich) A photograph helps to capture special moments during the dance. (Source: Jemma Borcich)

Although debutante balls have been organized by schools or church groups in Australia, today much of the industry has been privatized.

Lynne’s company usually puts on about 15 dances a year in Melbourne’s west, with between 400 and 600 guests at each event.

At the Taylors Lakes dance, Jemma and Reid’s big moment comes during their final dance performance.

Reid lifts Jemma onto his shoulder where she balances as he spins around the dance floor.

It looks like a version of that moment at the end of the movie Dirty Dancing, where Johnny holds Baby high in the air in triumph as they dance on stage.

Jemma and Reid prepare to do a flip maneuver on their deb ball. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

“Oh my god, I was so nervous doing those lifts,” says Jemma.

But then she is full of excitement explaining how they “nailed it”.

For many, the most emotional part of the night is when the youngsters dance with their parents.

“Dad was about to cry,” Jemma says of that dance.

For Jemma and Reid, bachelorette balls are a family affair.

Jemma’s father, Andrew Borcich, made his debutante ball with Lynne in 1988.

Jemma shares a dance with her father, Andrew. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica) Reid and his mother, Peta, enjoy a moment together. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica) The couple and their families mingle on the dance floor. (ABC News : Danielle Bonica)

He recalls “horrible haircuts and awkward dancing with a girl for the first time.”

These days, he says, kids grow up a little faster and are better prepared.

She sees the rookie balls as a “coming of age” event and says it’s been exciting to watch her daughter’s journey.

Reid’s mother, Peta Burgoyne, also made her debutante ball with Lynne.

“It’s a tradition that has remained,” he says.

“It gives kids today a chance to really learn how to dance with a partner.”

But he says dress styles are different today.

“We had big puffy sleeves and big skirts and now girls’ dresses are more streamlined and strapless,” she says.

Reid, Jemma and their friends have fun during the less formal part of the evening. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica) The deb balls of 2022 are more relaxed than those of previous generations. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica) At today’s bachelorette dances, cell phones and selfies are part of the night. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

For Jemma, the ball has just the right mix of old and new.

“I think it’s a great tradition with a modern twist, which is really perfect,” he says.

This is where opinions on deb balls diverge.

For many, like Jemma and her family, proms are a lovely tradition to carry on through the generations.

But critics say it is these very traditions that are incompatible with modern societies and the improving status of women.

The problem of the daughter

Kristen Richardson became a history sleuth when she tried to track rookie balls back to their starting point.

After much legal and social research, the writer “discovered that it was actually due to the Reformation, not only that, but it was precipitated by Henry VIII,” she says.

When the infamous monarch split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, Kristen says, “it got rid of the monasteries, it got rid of where rich families put their daughters, their extra daughters,” she says.

Debut balls have their roots in the Protestant Reformation that developed during the reign of King Henry VIII. (Supplied: National Maritime Museum, UK)

Kristen explains it like this.

Wealthy families of that time “would invest all their money in one daughter and she would have the best [marriage] prospects”.

Kristen says that any other daughter in the family would spend her adult life in a convent, which was a much cheaper option for the family than raising the funds for another dowry.

Historian Kristen Richardson has written a book that traces the origins of rookie balls. (Contributed by Kristen Richardson)

With the closing of the convents, Kristen says, “there were just a lot of girls released into society and nobody knew what to do with them.”

Families, he says, had to find a way to marry off more of their daughters.

In her book The Season, Kristen discovers that debutante balls are slowly emerging as a way to “fix that daughter problem.”

“It was a big deal because it was a formal release and of course it was going to cost a lot of money, so you’re making a statement about dowry and class status and all that, doing it,” he says.

This ceremony of introductions among high society appeared in an 1860 edition of The Illustrated London News. (Provided: Wikimedia Commons/The Illustrated London News)

The tradition continued until World War I, but it’s here, amid the enormous social upheaval caused by the war, that Kristen says the debutante balls finally outlived their original purpose of finding husbands for young women.

But oddly enough, that didn’t kill deb’s ball.

Today, Kristen says rookie balls are booming in China and Russia and a big deal in parts of the United States.

They also remain a tradition that many Australians have embraced.

The question is, how have these balls remained relevant to modern communities?

A group of women, including those wearing white, debuted in Queensland in 1948. (Supplied: State…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *