IT'S a chilly Tuesday evening and teenagers are being put through their paces at St Paul's College school hall on the outskirts of Walla.
Fourteen debutantes and their partners are learning a swing waltz - among two other dance routines - for their presentation ball at the Albury Entertainment Centre next month.
Dance trainer Glen Strauss (Albury-Wodonga Dance Centre) is teaching the teens to turn, glide, shadow and lead; for most of them it's their first foray into ballroom dancing.
Year 12 student Avie Liley, 17, of Table Top, says she has "zero" dance experience but had long planned to make her debut.
"It's something I've always wanted to do and especially since my brother Zac was a deb partner in 2017," she says.
"Everybody gets together and has fun; St Paul's has got a long history with deb balls."
Avie's partner Jack Kotzur, 18, another Year 12 student, rattles off the dances they're trying to master - "swing waltz, Evening Three-Step and Carousel" - with the kind of confidence that he claims doesn't always translate to his feet.
"I've picked it up alright but the few times I've tripped up, Glen is onto it straight away and helps us work it out," he says.
"I'm a bit nervous because I don't want to muck it up but mostly I'm looking forward to a fun night with my classmates. Both of my sisters did it through St Paul's too."
Every year, hundreds of debutantes and their partners don whites dresses and dinner suits at more than 20 balls in Albury-Wodonga and the surrounding towns while north of Wagga these gatherings are a rarity.
Traditionally an event to introduce wealthy young English women to society once they came of age, the debutante ritual flourished in Great Britain from 1780 to 1914, according to Kristen Richardson in The Season: A Social History of the Debutante.
During these years, Britain became the dominant power in the West, with its culture eventually spreading to its far-flung colonies.
Over time, Australians have put their own stamp on this rite of passage, which is still a meaningful milestone for many country teenagers.
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Albury District Debutante Balls co-ordinator Dianne Stepto, who runs six events a year, says few rituals offer the same connection, teamwork and chance to make memories with friends and family alike.
Having run her first deb ball in Albury on June 3, 1994, Ms Stepto says the balls usually involve up to 18 couples and 450 guests.
"I'm surprised they're still going so strong and the numbers are growing," she says.
"A lot of it is word of mouth; I think they sign up because they've been to a deb ball before.
"Over time, they realise it's about a lot more than a pretty dress; it's the friendships and working together as a team."
By year's end, he will have ticked off 110 balls since 2010.
"In my first year I did two deb balls, then in my second it was four, then in my third it was seven; now I do 12 to 14 a year," he says.
"The kids really enjoy it and we have a nice bond with them; we really work as a team."
St Paul's College events manager Joanne Knobel says the balls are a long-standing tradition at the school, which celebrates its 75th anniversary next year.
"We acknowledge the partners as much as we do the debutantes; basically they're entering into young adulthood," she says.
"A deb ball also teaches them deportment and that's okay; in this mixed up crazy world, young men want to respect young ladies and vice versa."
Ms Stepto says the transformation in the teenagers over the eight to 10-week journey is the most satisfying part of the process.
"The boys come in their tradie shorts and boots and they feel a bit out of place at first; then they arrive in their suits on the night and the transformation is amazing," Ms Stepto says.
"Some of the parents say to me: 'I never thought I'd see my son do this!'."
Ms Knobel says the lack of rituals for young people - particularly since the global pandemic halted many - mean they are embracing opportunities now.
"They absolutely love it!" Ms Knobel says.
"It's the whole process starting with asking a partner, which takes a bit of guts, through to practices, choosing a dress or being fitted for a suit and then the build-up to the night. It's totally outside the square of their thinking up to now.
"It's confirmation they're making their own decisions, it's pride for the family, you don't have lots of events like this.
"During COVID-19, they weren't even allowing debutantes and partners to dance with their parents, which is always an absolute highlight. Outside of a wedding, there are very few chances to do this."
Ms Stepto says the global pandemic certainly kept organisers on their toes.
"We learnt in COVID you could do dance training anywhere; we were in the parks in Wodonga," she says.
"We hosted a ball on the stage of the theatre because dancing was allowed there but not on the dancefloor. We've had to be adaptable and it made us think outside the box."
Avie's deb ball has been postponed twice now - once in April last year and again in November.
"My dress had been sitting in the cupboard for a year. Now it's been altered; we're really ready this time!"
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