LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — Call them the "sugar and spice" girls: grade-schoolers dressed in an array of clothing from blue jeans to velvet dresses giggling and jumping around in a line.
"I'm nervous," says one.
While they wait anxiously in the wings, their parents sit checking camera batteries in chairs decorated with pink and purple balloons. A bunch of white silk roses and a stack of certificates sit on a nearby table.
"Those are for us," points out an eager participant.
After six weeks of classes, these first- through sixth-graders are about to strut down a catwalk and graduate from Pretty as a Picture, a course that teaches girls about manners, poise, style, and how to mind their P's and Q's.
A staple of the South, courses like these, commonly called
charm or finishing schools, were once popular, and essential, among upper-class debutantes. Now, these courses are helping young women and men of all backgrounds feel better about themselves while learning manners they can use throughout their lives.
"It's all about gaining confidence," says Melanie Hammock, a Pretty as a Picture regional director and etiquette consultant in Little Rock. "I hand [out] the roses and tell the girls that they are like tiny rosebuds just about to open, and at some point in their lives, they become a rose." The six-week course meets one hour a week at Dillard's department store in Little Rock.
Classes strive to blend contemporary manners with traditional etiquette. They teach visual poise -standing, walking, and pivoting -in order to walk in a room with grace. Also covered is social etiquette: pouring and serving punch, proper ways to set a table, and learning to be a thoughtful hostess while using the right fork. Style and grooming, skin and hair care, and organizing closets are among the lessons as well.
"My daughters are at the ages - 10 and eight - where they need to know how to act in public," says Carol Patrick. "I want them to know the correct way to eat at dinners and tea parties. It's important to know these things."
Mrs. Hammock stresses that in this busy age when both parents work in most households, children are often not taught manners and poise. Courses help take the pressure off parents, and children often tend to listen to someone else in authority rather than their parents.
Young men can learn, too
Boys aren't excluded in the world of etiquette. Pretty as a Picture has a male counterpart - Manners for Young Men, a program where boys learn self-confidence and the proper behavior for social situations.
The Pretty as a Picture program was started in 1982 in St. Louis by Maria Everding, who thought the children of the 1960s counter-culture crowd needed to be taught manners. Ms. Everding never set out to be Miss Manners and certainly doesn't encourage the rigid formality once associated with finishing schools.
But since its inception, the program has grown to include dozens of etiquette consultants, trained and certified by Everding, who teach the program in more than 90 cities. Prices range from $85 to $125, depending on the region.
"Manners and etiquette aren't as stiff as they used to be," she says. "Things are looser, but manners are still manners. People are hungry to learn them."
Everding suggests to students and teachers that thank-you notes, for example, do not have to be intimidating or stark -black ink on white paper. Instead, the girls are encouraged to be themselves.
As for phone manners, Everding says students "should learn to answer the phone with a smile in their voice. They need to go tell, not yell."
Pouring punch is another aspect of etiquette school that few ever consider. (Yes, there is a right way to do it.) When offering punch to a guest, the hostess holds the punch cup over the bowl with the handle facing away from her. A guest always takes the cup by the handle.
"Manners must be incorporated into every aspect of daily life," explains Everding. "Without rules of etiquette, life would be very chaotic."
Valerie Kellam, a Little Rock parent of two daughters, agrees.
"Better social skills are crucial," says Mrs. Kellam. "My daughter Anna is a tomboy, so these last six weeks have been most interesting for her. She got a manicure during one of the courses and loved it."
While the girls learn proper behavior, Hammock stresses two important lessons every time she teaches: kindness to others, and real beauty starts within.
"These are important things to learn as a young woman," says Hammock. "It's a tough and cold world out there. They need to know that yes, it's important to know how to hold a fork, but it's equally important to develop confidence."
The girls appear enthralled to learn the proper ways to behave. Coy and shy, most don't want to talk about what they learned during their classes. Instead, they would rather show than tell -standing up tall, smiling and saying "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am," rolling their eyes while attempting to charm.
"I think it's important to learn how to act right," says elementary-school student Mary Patrick. "I'll have this forever. Now, I know what to do and not to do."