Cotillion of Aiken still swingin’ at 60
Sherry Williamson has been attending Cotillion of Aiken events since the 1980s, but she found out on Saturday that her ties to the club go back even farther.
The Cotillion of Aiken held its 60th annual ball on Saturday at Houndslake Country Club. Williamson found out earlier on Saturday that her father’s band, Elden Jones and the Starlight Serenaders, played at the very first cotillion ball in 1954, as well as several consecutive balls. He played trumpet and was the band leader.
“I did not realize he played for cotillion,” she said. “When I was growing up, he was always away playing for a dance. He never told us what he was playing for.”
She recalled his band’s sound as jazz and swing. “He liked a lot of Stan Kenton. That was his favorite,” she said.
On Saturday, Aiken’s own Palmetto Groove Band kept the dance floor filled with a variety of hits including “Proud Mary,” “Power of Love” and “Carolina Girl.”
Pete Peters, co-vice president, called the Cotillion of Aiken a formal, social dance club.
“Aiken has a rich tradition of social clubs over the years, going back to the Civil War,” he said. “Cotillion was a type of dance back in the 1700s, but in the last 100 years, it means a formal dance or sometimes a debutant dance.”
A cotillion club existed in Aiken in the early 1900s, but Peters said World War II killed it off. The wives of several prominent Aiken men got together and in 1954 established a new club. The first ball was held that year at The Willcox. The club also holds a formal dance each spring.
One tradition that started but is no longer practiced was the grand procession, which took place in the middle of the event. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond and his wife led it, according to Peters.
“Try to imagine these people who are socializing and the band is playing,” he said. “They say, ‘OK, stop. Let’s go line up and do the grand march.”
The event floated from The Willcox to the Fermata Club and was even held at St. Angela Academy. It’s been held at Houndslake since the late 1970s. Sometimes the ball ran from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., with breakfast being served at 2 a.m.
Good music is a requirement, Peters said. The earlier events featured mainly swing and shag music.
“By the ’60s, they had bands that today would be called beach music bands,” he said. “This club has always brought in the best beach bands from the Southeast.”
The event requires tails for men, but Peters said Aiken men originally refused and have never worn tails. An old bylaw in the 1950s – written by the founding female members – stated there could be no single women in the Cotillion. The constitution said nothing about single men.
“Protecting their spouses, I guess,” Peters said with a laugh.
Skipper Perry first got involved with Cotillion of Aiken in 1968 and was president in 1980.
“The young people don’t dance – people younger than I am,” he said. “I got a broken toe and a bad ankle, but I’ll dance.”
Perry said dressing up, eating good food and seeing old friends always makes for an enjoyable evening.
“I like to dress up and party and dance,” he said. “Even though I don’t party as hardy as I used to.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.