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Elbows off the table, close your mouth when you chew: Charm schools are making a comeback

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Roslyn Rolan watches as Isabella Safdie arranges a dinner setting. (Photograph by Elaine Santana)

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Andrea De La Cruz practicing her walk as Natalie Delgado (left) and Isabella Safdie (right) watch. (Photograph by Elaine Santana)

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Natalie Delgado, Andrea De La Cruz and Isabella Safdie watch as Rolan shows them how to sit. (Photograph by Elaine Santana)

The three books--copies of Dr. Benjamin Spock's classic manual on baby and child care--were each precariously perched atop the heads of three 13-year-olds who were practicing how to walk, their heels softly clicking across the marble floor.

“Very good, that’s great,” exclaimed Roslyn Rolan as young Natalie Delgado walked across the room.

Natalie, Isabella Safdie and Andrea De La Cruz, all from Fort Lee, N.J., were spending the afternoon with Rolan, who has been teaching the girls how to walk, sit, eat, talk, even breathe, since they were 11 years old.

Rolan, a petite 65-year-old with short blonde hair and perfectly manicured nails, runs the “Image & Etiquette Institute” in Fort Lee, where everyone from children to seniors come to take classes. Rolan even has a manual, “The Charm Course 101,” which outlines proper image and etiquette in five chapters.

They used to be relics of the past, along with the tea parties, cotillions, and high-society soirees they evoked. But charm schools, also known as finishing schools, are making a comeback as an increasing number of people, especially teenage girls, are signing up to learn how to walk, talk, eat and dress with class.

“Today’s society has reached an all-time low when it comes to manners,” said Jolene Savage, who runs the “Social Graces Academy” in Topeka, Kan. “Schools don’t teach manners anymore. Parents growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s were taught that etiquette was snobby and old-school, so children grow up not knowing how to properly interact with others.”

Savage said proper etiquette was always a part of her upbringing. Her grandmother was a nurse-maid and her grandfather was a bartender for the Kennedy family in Hyannisport, Mass., before John F. Kennedy became president.

Savage and other consultants said that some of the common faux-pas people make are not making eye-contact when they talk to people, not introducing themselves and others properly, chewing gum in public, and one of the biggest mistakes, holding their dinner knives in their right hands.

“When I see the fork switch, I want to run screaming,” said Samantha von Sperling, who runs the “Polished Social Image Consultants” in New York City. “It’s more daft than us not being on the metric system!”

Unlike the finishing schools of the past, which were year-round boarding schools that focused on preparing young women for marriage, today’s schools are after-school programs or summer sessions.

Adults come to take classes on hygiene, social etiquette and personal grooming, especially people who want to move up in the corporate world or have to entertain moneyed clients.

But a lot of interest is among parents who sign up their children, generally their teenage daughters, for lessons in “appearance, grooming and tea room modeling,” “table manners and dining skills,” and “poise and posture.”

“I want my daughter to be completely polished,” said Luis Delgado, Natalie’s father. “Etiquette and manners were always very important to me.”

And while lessons are expensive--some hour-long sessions are as much as $300--more and more middle-class parents are sending their pre-teens and teens to these classes so that they can have an edge over the competition for college, career and beyond, even dating and marriage.

“It’s very challenging to be a young woman today,” said Rolan. “There is a lot of pressure on young girls to follow the crowd, to have sex, to disrespect themselves. I feel as if charm courses give girls self-respect and confidence.”

Rolan charges between $1,500 to $2,000 for customized training sessions. She said she hears from people all the time that she’s old-fashioned. “Oh please,” she said with a flick of her hand, as though delicately shooing away a fly. “This is common courtesy.”

Von Sperling, who works with celebrities and other high-end clients, half of whom are men, said that there is a “fourth generation” epidemic when it comes to bad manners.

“It started in the 1960s, when people were disregarding the rules on purpose to make a point,” she said. “Now we’ve hit rock bottom.”

Von Sperling even points to the world’s environmental problems, tense international politics and economic troubles for the surge in people signing up for classes.

“The world is upside down and learning manners is the equivalent of making your bed when your life is a mess," she said. “It brings a little more order to a chaotic world.”

But not everyone agrees.

Catherine Kerrison, the co-chair of the Women's Studies Department at Villanova University, said charm schools are reminiscent of the 18th century.

"The argument is that the way to restore order in all this apparent chaos is a return to the old ways," she said. "Its a way of ordering the world according to class."

And while another criticism is that the classes are just another manifestation of children growing up too fast and doing too much, the kids themselves have no complaints.

“It's fun,” said Natalie Delgado. “There isn’t anything about the charm course I don’t enjoy.”

E-mail: zm37@columbia.edu