Twenty-three young women in long white dresses carried red roses and smiled in the spotlight as the St. Petersburg Debutante Club recognized them at its time-honored ball. There were three changes, however, in the usual traditions of the celebration at the Coliseum.
Former St. Petersburg mayor Bob Ulrich, who has served as master of ceremonies, announcing the debutantes for the past 20 years, was under the weather and unable to make it.
"He waited until Monday morning and then decided he just couldn't do it. He hated to miss it," his daughter Trish Ulrich said at the Wednesday night ball. Her brother, Kurt Ulrich, stepped in on his father's behalf.
The other change in the program was a welcomed one. After a buffet of hot hors d'oeuvres ended, the chafing dishes were filled once more around 10 p.m. with Chick-fil-A sandwiches and nuggets. This late-night snack was courtesy of David and Michelle Neely, parents of deb Caroline Neely and the owners of the Chick-fil-A on Fourth Street. Neely attends the University of Cincinnati.
Carolyn Cureton did something no other deb before her has done. She got permission to have two escorts instead of just one because she has twin brothers.
"I knew I would either have both of them or neither," said the sophomore at Florida Southern College. "I couldn't pick just one."
After each debutante and parents are announced, the girls dance with their father. Then they dance with their escort. That's when age and rank came into play for the Curetons. Carolyn danced with brother Casey Cureton first because he is two minutes older than Corey Cureton.
That dance was one of the most daunting parts of being an escort, according to several of the young men, mostly brothers and friends of the debutantes.
"Thankfully, all we had to do was make it through one dance," said Parker Mattern, who escorted Emily McMullen, a student at Wake Forest University. "It went fine. It was less complicated than at the dance class." He referred to a recent party hosted by friends of the debutantes' families at Fred Astaire Studios, where the younger generation got a crash course in ballroom dancing.
"It was actually easy. You just keep moving your feet," said Kyle Bulleit, who escorted his sister Holly Bulleit, who attends Florida State University.
"I didn't know we were going to have to dance until I walked into the rehearsal and they were dancing," said Grey Rixie, who escorted Caroline Skidmore. The two are friends at Washington & Lee University.
Beyond dancing, talking to a lot of parents and other adults during a series of parties over the holidays is one of the other primary duties of escorts. I asked several of them what tips they would offer in the art of multi-generational conversing.
"Yes ma'am. Yes sir," Rixie, a North Carolina native, said with a knowing smile.
"The key is remembering who people are and if you don't, you just smile a lot," said Paul Reischmann, who escorted longtime friend Sarah McKeage, who goes to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
"People like to talk about themselves so I ask them what they do and find out what they are interested in," said Felipe Coundouriotis, who escorted his sister, Monica Coundouriotis, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame.
"You talk a lot about your college experience," said Guthrie Cohen, who escorted his cousin Sarah Green, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Know what your major is because everyone asks you about that."
"Parents love to hear about college," agreed Brady Mixner, who escorted his longtime friend Molly Doyle. "I'm a theme park management major so they like to hear about that."
Mixner said being an escort also meant making sure Molly, who attends Furman University, had fun and he offered her some tips after the rehearsal.
"She was moving too slowly. So I told her she needed to pick up the pace and smile, smile, smile," he laughed. Easy for someone wearing pants and flat shoes to say to a girl navigating stairs in a long skirt and heels with the video of Jennifer Lawrence falling at the Oscars playing in her mind.
But Mixner still sounds like an excellent escort and friend. Jillian Doyle said he sent her daughter roses the morning of the ball with a note that read: "Thank you for allowing me to escort the most beautiful girl at the ball."