Wedding Day First Dance
A Hip Hopping, Dirty Dancing, Thriller.
the Yo Ho Hoedown in Tampa FL / Image by Seitz Photography
One look at YouTube under the category “First Dance” will tell you all you need to know about the Wedding Day First Dance tradition: You have to do it! There are literally hundreds of YouTube entries, with more popping up on line each day, showing newly married couples everywhere offering their wedding guests a special treat: a humorous, innovative, exotic, romantic, glamorous, specially choreographed First Dance.
The explanation for the new hype surrounding this trend may be found in that old axiom, “life imitates art” (or is it “art imitating life”?) because it is the influence of the “art form” television, with programs such as Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, that have been instrumental in enticing couples far beyond the confines of the traditional wedding waltz.
Today, instead, couples are hip-hopping to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s "Baby Got Back," or leaping off the stage to a waiting partner in their carefully-studied rendition of “Dirty Dancing.” The new tradition in Wedding Day First Dances can be summarized by another song, from Cole Porter’s musical of the same name: Anything Goes!
History of the First Dance
But once, a very long time ago, that was not the case at all for the Wedding Dance. Within hetero- relationships, the tradition is traceable back to ancient times, when a man took a bride by literally taking her, hunting down and kidnapping the woman who had become the object of his desires. To showcase his hunting prowess and his new bride, he marched his catch round and round the fire in front of friends and clansmen before the celebratory partying could begin.
Over the eons, worldwide, the marital relationship “evolved,” including eras when partners were purchased, contexts in which the First Dance was more sexually-charged or regarded more obviously as a fertility rite, and others in which it was forbidden for couples to actually touch while dancing. Over time, and with the changing influence of various world religions, in some societies the Dance became more ritualized; in others, it became more a romantic connection between partners.
Trends in Modern Times
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the trends in First Dances are changing once again. Regardless of a couple’s culture, ethnicity, religion or gender, either partner can initiate the dance and lead the way. And although the Dance continues to be a visual representation of the exchange of vows, now it is also symbolic of the couple’s acceptance of each other as equal partners and the beginning of their new life together as one.
But whether you’re wanting to start your new life together with a traditional soft, romantic Waltz or a smooth Foxtrot, an energetic Jitterbug, Country-Western Swing, or intricate Tango, one thing is for sure: the First Dance takes knowledge, skill, practice, and for many couples, a big dose of courage. Today, many couples must have lessons before executing their First Dance.
First Dance Experts
Two professionals who provide couples with all of that and more are Pam and Leigh of Atlanta, Georgia. Experts in the field of dance and in particular First Dances, Pam and Leigh have been partners on and off the dance floor for many years, and the story of how they met is no surprise. “Pam and I met dancing!” Leigh says of their first meeting at Atlanta’s Country Western gay club, Hoedowns. “It was a very special place. We both met wonderful folks there who remain friends of ours today.”
Somehow, the women managed to cultivate an active friendship and develop their dancing skills while building busy careers: Pam is a pediatric nurse of 20+ years, and Leigh a 30-year veteran of the neuromuscular and massage therapist field, specializing in specific pain and stress.
Their friendship and love of dancing together socially continued for another two years before they started dating. Leigh says, “The more we talked, danced and shared life experiences, the more we saw our similarities in values, behaviors and desires.” After several more years they made the commitment and combined their two well-established households into one.
“I had loved dance since my first tap class when I was five years old,” Leigh says. Then, as a young adult she spent evenings dancing socially at the local clubs. But when friends took her to a Country Western dance club, she says she was turned off at first. “I thought the clothing was hokey and the songs were a bit ‘down and out’ with their messages.” But she saw that the dancers seemed to be having a great time, so she took some classes and soon she was having a great time too. “I loved the collaboration and non-verbal communication that occurs on the dance floor.”
For the next ten years Leigh says she made friends with dancers on the Country Western competition dance circuit and assisted them with their neuromuscular needs. “The more I attended the competitions the more excited I became about dancing. I found myself taking classes from world class champions and striving to become a better dancer,” she says.
Pam, on the other hand, grew up in New Orleans and primarily listened to jazz and classical music when she was young. However, her mother loved country music. “We were constantly changing the radio channels on road trips,” she recalls. Pam admits she has ‘three left feet.’ “I am the kind of person who stumbles over nothing, not naturally coordinated.” But when she moved to Atlanta in 1996 and a friend invited her to a country dance class, she attended and quickly, she was hooked!
She and Leigh also became ‘hooked’ on one another. Leigh recalls, “Once I met Pam, all of those wonderful aspects of dance were enhanced. She wanted to learn more too! I found myself taking my caring for her and expressing it on the dance floor.”
As their relationship together progressed, so did their mutual interest in dance as more than simply a hobby. Leigh explains, “We started out as beginning social Country Western dancers.” But then, Hoedowns was bought by a friend, and he wanted quality dance instruction to be available to the community. “We volunteered our Saturdays,” Leigh says, “and the class grew to over 50 people!”
Leigh and Pam continued their own training too, and soon found themselves competing on the gay Country Western dance circuit. Then they became nationally certified dance instructors through the National Teachers Association for Country Western Dance (NTA). Leigh says, “The goal was to raise our skill set so we could pass along better techniques and patterns to people in our classes.”
Along with their day careers and their Country Western dancing, they began teaching other classes too. “In the evenings Pam and I teach basic two step, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Waltz and line dances in a Country Western club here in Atlanta called The Wild Mustang. We teach private sessions as well. We assist couples -gay, straight, bi, transgendered, it doesn't matter to us- to hone their dance techniques to make it more fun!”
First Dance Guidelines
“It is a very moving experience when people allow you into their personal lives and personal space. We don't take it lightly,” Leigh says, speaking about the honor of helping couples prepare for their Wedding Day First Dance.
But this personal, moving experience also has a practical side, and Leigh and Pam have a logical and practical method for teaching engaged partners how to dance. The first, basic step is to encourage couples to allow sufficient time before the wedding to thoroughly learn and practice. Although Pam and Leigh can perform miracles with even unskilled couples in four sessions they suggest a much longer timeframe. “Ideally we love to have three to six months,” Leigh explains.
Once a couple does decide to get started Pam and Leigh ask each partner to tell a bit about themselves. “We get to know them... we get to know how their friends know them. What tone do they want for their wedding and reception, what tone do they want to set during the Dance? Serious, fun, comical?”
Next, they ask the couple to select five songs they really like and consider appropriate and fun for their own First Dance. “We watch the couple dance, to assess their skill level, strongest dance moves and level of comfort with each other,” Leigh explains. “We watch them move to each of the five songs... we like to see what ‘ignites’ them... which song gets them excited, laughing and animated.”
Although a couple may be excited, laughing, and animated, they may still have trouble stepping in tempo together or motioning together over the dance floor without feeling clumsy. Leigh says, “There is ALWAYS a movement that two people can do together that will look nice. We help them to find these movements using observation and feedback, and we accentuate the positive.”
To overcome this potential obstacle, Leigh and Pam say there are some extremely easy dances. “The easiest dance to teach a couple,” Leigh says, “is a very basic sway. We don't really teach that one as it comes naturally. Yet, once people feel and see their accomplishment with this motion, they naturally begin adding a variety of movements.”
Sometimes the women teach a simple line dance too. “It starts with the couple, but guests quickly join in to take away from the couples’ apprehension,” Leigh explains. This also enhances the celebration.
But some of the couples seeking lessons are on the other end of the spectrum too, even proficient enough to want to co-create the dance along with Pam and Leigh. “We see it all!” Leigh says. “The sky is the limit! Dancing with the Stars and So You Think you Can Dance have really sparked new interest in dance as a whole. Sometimes we meet couples who will work for a year to create a specifically choreographed dance that ‘hits the breaks’ and special moments of a specific song.”
For the more accomplished dancer, Leigh says she believes the most difficult dance may be the West Coast Swing. “There are many components -compression, resistance, varied footwork and timing- that change frequently during the piece. Yet, when couples come to a first lesson with previous skills, it can make for a really hot, spicy and fun First Wedding Dance.”
To teach such a dance, Leigh and Pam have a technique which they used recently while instructing one class. “While Pam was calling the steps, I assisted individual couples,” Leigh explains. Leigh danced with each of the partners, taking their part, as leader or follower, so each could understand how to interpret what the other partner was experiencing. “Then, we made corrections from there. It was so energizing to see people get excited when they got the move from beginning to end, with music!” Another vital technique Leigh and Pam use is videotaping. “At integral times during our work with a couple, videotape is an easy tool to be sure they like the direction they are going,” Leigh explains.
In addition to assisting with the music, working within an appropriate level and type of dance, and creating the choreography, Pam and Leigh do some extras too, such as teaching about the apparel that will work with the chosen dance. “Choice of clothing can help to make the dance easier,” Leigh says. “For example if a couple is waltzing, we want to be sure there is not too much flowing fabric as one can become tangled during a turn.”
Another key element many couples request is being able to train “on location.” Leigh says, “It can be really nice to practice where the reception actually takes place.” To facilitate the requests of their students, she and Pam have traveled nationally and internationally to assist couples with their First Dance.
One extremely important facet of their work is to assure that all couples will be at ease for their performance. Leigh sums up the heart of their goal as instructors: “We remind couples that this is their first First Dance together. We tell them to focus on one another... in that moment the whole world will seem to disappear.”
Today, the First Dance is no longer an interaction in which one partner showcases and displays his or her grand prize to other tribesmen standing by, nor is it a symbolic acceptance of a pre-arranged union. Now the First Dance spotlights the romantic interchange between the newlyweds and provides insight about the tone a couple envisions for their new life together. Whether swaying slowly to Keith Urban’s “Making Memories of Us,” or choreographing an energetic rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” wedding dance performances can sometimes be designed by today’s couples as a special offering for their wedding guests. But moreover, the meaning behind the First Dance is simple: It is a loving, visual representation of the commitment the couple has made to lead and to follow one another in their new lifelong dance together.
RainbowWeddingNetwork.com has been the trusted wedding resource for the LGBT community since 1999. Along with the diverse services through their website, the company produces an ongoing national tour of LGBT Wedding Expos. Additional wedding & parenting related articles are available through the site. www.RainbowWedddingNetwork.com.
Susan Hart Hellman is a California-based freelance magazine writer, and author of the first in her series of murder mysteries, Catch ‘n Release: The Game. To contact Susan and for more information please visit www.susanharthellman.com.