April 11, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous,” says De’Ja Theresa Diane Combs in recalling her life-changing moment last spring. Sure, the then Omaha North High School senior had just been crowned Miss Cotillion 2013, but her case of the jitters had more to do with what was to follow.

“One of the great things about being involved in Cotillion is how it stresses father-daughter bonds,” she says before explaining that her first tiara-topped responsibility was that of the time-honored Father-Daughter Dance. “I’ve been dancing since I was 4. I took ballet. I was a cheerleader in high school. I’ve been with the Shouts of Praise [dance ministry at Salem Baptist Church]. But I’ve never been that nervous about a dance. Getting to dance with my dad that night was…special.”

Combs, the daughter of Jewell Kirksey-Smith and Billie Smith, will see the same tender tableau unfold once again on April 27 when she returns to help crown a successor at the 55th Annual Cotillion Ball of the Omaha Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. The event is a fundraiser for the nonprofit women’s service organization with 267 chapters in the United States and Europe. The Links’ mission centers on quality-of-life issues for African Americans and people of African descent worldwide. The Omaha Chapter has provided over $1,000,000 in scholarship assistance to high school seniors since its inception in 1959. Recent projects have included an anti-bullying initiative in partnership with Girls Inc.

The next Miss Cotillion, Combs says, will walk away empowered about who she is and what she can expect to do in life. “If she had any doubts about herself before, Cotillion will teach her that she can make a difference, that she can contribute to the community.” Combs is now studying special education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her plan to contribute begins with a goal to become a kindergarten teacher in the Omaha Public Schools system, perhaps even at her alma mater, Hartman Elementary School.

Combs’ extended family is no stranger to the ball and boasts a long lineage of Cotillion women. Her mother participated in 1992 and her grandmother, Theresa Kirksey, donned a gown in 1973.

“I don’t know if you’re ever really fully prepared until your time comes at Cotillion,” Kirksey-Smith says. “It can be overwhelming, but it’s an awesome experience for any high-school senior girl.”

“The older ladies of Cotillion,” Combs adds, “are great about the traditional aspects of an event like this. Poise and etiquette are valuable things to learn for any young adult, but Cotillion is really more about family, service, and building better communities.”

The sometimes-intricate customs of Cotillion culture may be a bit puzzling to the uninitiated, perhaps especially for men, but Billie Smith will always cherish a certain memory of his daughter’s special night—a visceral one that requires no additional explanation as to its deeper meaning.

“To be able to dance with De’Ja that night was unforgettable,” he says. “There were a lot of teary eyes in that room. Unforgettable.”

Visit omahachapterlinksinc.org for more on The Links and the 55th Annual Cotillion Ball.

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