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Local youth revive lost art of conversation, etiquette in manners classes

Some may think social niceties like good table manners and a firm handshake are casualties in the digital era, but in La Cañada hundreds of etiquette-minded students are striving to start the school year off on the right foot.

And with the fall season underway, local groups are finding a blend of tried and true etiquette standards and modern-minded lessons about networking and conversation that seem to jibe with what parents want for their children.

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“Whether the economy goes south or north, parents still want basic manners for their children,” said Darcee Gollatz-Klapp, who runs Gollatz Cotillion with husband Wilbur and daughter Emmalou.

The San Bernardino County-based business has been offering cotillion instruction since 1932, when Virginia Gollatz began hosting classes at the Huntington Sheraton Hotel in Pasadena (today the Langham Huntington). Today it’s a fourth-generation family business.

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“The old cotillion was sitting around a room in white gloves, wondering where to put your napkin,” Gollatz-Klapp said. “[Now] they’re walking around, we’re sitting them boy-girl-boy-girl at a table and they’re learning dancing skills. It’s basic basics, but children don’t get that, so that’s where we fit in.”

Cotillion classes in La Cañada go back at least 50 years, Gollatz-Klapp estimates. Today, students in grades 4 through 6 enroll in five monthly, one-hour sessions that cover small talk, eye contact, dining skills and the lost art of writing thank-you notes. An essential life skills class is offered for middle and high school students.

During the season’s first class Tuesday at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, some 120 well-dressed fourth-graders fumbled their way through the foxtrot, introductions and toast-making 101.

“I feel like this just slows us down a bit,” said La Cañada mom Anh-Luu Hohnbaum, who brought son Ryan to cotillion after older son Nathan went through the program. “Even just looking your partners in the eyes when you’re talking to them is a good lesson.”

Fourth-grader Toby Thuss was not yet sold on the idea.

“It’s awkward,” he said, cringing inside his suit jacket at the thought of dancing with an actual girl.

Mandy Redfern enrolled daughter Katelyn in hopes the lessons would help bring her out of her shell and maybe impart some practical skills.

“She was apprehensive, but mama needed her to learn to use a knife and fork,” she laughed. “It’s the whole reason we’re here — and to have fun, of course.”

Just a short drive away, another manners class was in full swing at the Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge. There, Manners for Kids classes, led by instructor and Glendale Unified elementary school teacher Dianeh O’Farrill Sablan, aims to teach kids ages 6 to 12 the importance of posture, basic table manners and making a good first impression with a nice, firm handshake and a smile.

“There’s a reason behind the rules, and I tell them the reasons,” Sablan explained.

As with Gollatz-Klapp, etiquette instruction is a multigenerational passion for Sablan — her grandmother ran Superación de Margarita O’Farrill, Los Angeles-based lessons for business women. Since then, her father and aunts followed suit, one aunt branching out to youth instruction.

“It was something that was second nature to the family,” she said. “When I started to teach children I started to see the need for social skills, problem-solving and resilience. These are skills we use every day in any situation.”

Community Center Executive Director Maureen Bond said she’s thrilled the center is able to offer some basic etiquette for youth.

“We’re all on our cellphones and everyone’s plugged into their earbuds and turning the world off, and it’s starting to hurt us” she said. “But these kids can now go to their grandparents and show off what they’ve learned.”

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