Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. That is the mantra of William F. Phillips, who has been teaching ballroom dancing to Chester area youth for 55 years. Phillips, 75 years-young, still snaps his fingers to the beat of the music and beams while watching his students practice, says he would not think of doing anything else. “I love it. I love every minute of it – even the hard part.”
The hard part is teaching basic ballroom dancing to seventh and eighth grade boys and girls in a time when maybe it’s not so cool. “When you first see them-it’s rough. But then you see them at the formal and it’s really something.” He says he’s not teaching them to be on Dancing with the Stars or even expecting them to be perfect, but rather, he wants them to know enough to have a nice time, to learn a few steps and maybe even converse with each other.
A lot has changed since Phillips first started teaching. In 55 years, he says with a laugh, “everything” has changed. Music was played on the piano, girls always wore hose, in addition to the required white gloves, and he did not need a microphone to hold the attention of the youth. And just as though he feels that everything has changed, nothing has really. His love of dance and the eagerness of each child to learn to dance have never changed.
The ballroom dancing class, referred to by many as just Cotillion, is sponsored by the Junior
Federated Woman’s Club of Chester, and has become a rite of passage for many Chester residents. Nervous smiles and awkward glances give way to laughing and graceful dancing in the exercise room of the Chester YMCA. White gloves and dresses are appropriate dress for girls, while boys are expected to wear a shirt, tie, sport coat or suit.
Mary Schindel, a former Cotillion student, and current Cotillion committee member thinks Mr. Phillips is amazing. “He is timeless…I don’t know his secret.” She adds that she ultimately thinks it is about respect. “The kids still relate to him. They respect him... he has rules, we stick with the rules, and we haven’t changed the rules.” Schindel says the Junior Woman’s League took over from the Woman’s League and they wanted to keep it exactly the same, so that’s what they did. They didn’t change any rules or dress code.
Tyler Harris, a seventh grader, says Mr. Phillips is awesome. “He is a wonderful dance instructor. He makes dancing fun…and you get to dance with girls.”
Mr. Phillips, humble and almost embarrassed at his remarkable task of teaching Cotillion for 55 years, is quick to point out that it is really a family affair. His wife, Toni Phillips, is the “DJ” and also has the task of driving them both to Chester from their hometown of Franklin, Va. The hour-and-a-half trip is made 10 times from September to March.
Toni, who proudly boasts that they will also celebrate 50 years of marriage, says she started coming with him to the classes while they were dating so she could see him. “He has always been a dancer…it has been such a big part of his life.”
His daughter, Joanna Kunz, makes the trek from Charlotte, N.C. – a four-hour trip to help teach and keep the classes going for her father. “I’ve grown up doing this…I think it’s great. He loves it and she (my mother) loves it because he does.”
Even more remarkable than his youthful stamina is the fact that in 55 years, he has only missed two classes, due to brain surgery in 2002. Toni, who said they were all worried if he would pull through, said the first words he uttered after surgery was, “Who’s in Chester?” He was worried about who was teaching the class.
Toni, who says with a smile and admiration, “I think he’s a little bit like Peter Pan-he never grew up. He’s got that youth about him.”
And as if on cue, Mr. Phillips interrupts my conversation with his wife and says, “Every time before class starts, I don’t know who is more excited, the children or me!”