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Your First Dance

Martha Stewart Weddings, Fall 2002

A graceful, fluid dance is a sweet metaphor for a good marriage. It looks effortless, but it actually takes practice, patience, and passion to get it just right. You will have a lifetime to work on your relationship but probably just a few months to plan your first wedding dance. Where to begin?

Start by thinking about the mood you want to set as you step out for your spin on the dance floor: Will it be tender, joyful, sentimental, vivacious, or lighthearted? What you desire can usually be evoked in a particular style of dance or by a single, meaningful song. You may select one first, then the other, or choose the dance and song together.

Many couples know right away that they want to do a traditional ballroom dance. The perennial favorites for weddings are the romantic waltz and the genteel fox-trot. The waltz is marked by turning movements and is danced to music of the same name (one familiar waltz is "Someday My Prince Will Come"). The fox-trot is a combination of slow and quick steps executed by smooth, gliding motions. It can be danced to any number of musical styles, ranging from ragtime to Big Band jazz to fifties rock n' roll. Most beginners can learn the basics of either dance in a few hours, but you'll need additional time and practice to become confident with the steps.

A formal ballroom dance is not the only option -- you can choose something less conventional that reflects your personalities or interests. For instance, instructor Debbie Ramsey-Boz, who owns Mad About Dance Academy, in Raleigh, North Carolina, says that each year several couples come to her to learn the Carolina shag -- a regional favorite often done to beach music -- for their weddings. Swing dances, the tango, and the merengue are other popular choices.

If you are inexperienced in the dance style you want to do or just need a bit of help choreographing some moves, a qualified dance instructor is a valuable resource. Teddy Kern, co-owner and artistic director of Dance Manhattan, a ballroom, swing, and Latin studio in New York City, says, "The best way to find a teacher is to get a recommendation from someone who has taken lessons with good results." Another way to find an instructor whose style suits you is to take a trial class or private lesson.

When you contact the studio, discuss your goals, and ask how many lessons you will need to meet them realistically. If you have six months or more before the event, you can take group classes in a few different styles to find out which dances appeal to you. Prices for group classes range from $45 to $70 per person; the fee usually covers four hour-long lessons, held over the course of a month. If you have less time before your wedding or want specialized attention to refine your moves, consider taking a series of private dance lessons. They cost $65 to $85 and up for a couple per session -- but there may be a discount when you buy blocks of multiple lessons. Most studios offer special wedding packages, which combine group and private lessons.

For some couples the first dance is inspired by a special song -- perhaps the tune that was playing when they got engaged or a piece by a favorite artist with lyrics they love. You can also look for a song whose words resonate with you; standards by composers such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin are classic choices (See How We Chose Our First Song). If you're unsure of how to dance to your chosen tune, again, a professional can help. Ramsey-Boz asks her students to bring a recording of the music and analyzes the style to determine the dance that will work best with it. "Some people want the entire song choreographed, and others want just the opening and ending planned," she says.

Theater performers Robert Royston and Nicola Stimac may be professionals, but having a meaningful song was more important to them than an elaborate first dance for their September 2000 wedding, in East Hampton, New York. They danced a slow-paced nightclub two-step to a ballad, "Evermore," composed for them by friend Ann Hampton Callaway. "Our guests assumed we would do more than that," says Royston, who is also a dance instructor. "But we wanted everybody to listen to the words."

Rather than doing a formal dance, you can extemporize. For their May 2002 wedding, in Matthews, North Carolina, Bradley Evans and Heather Wells chose "The Keeper of the Stars," a country song recorded by Tracy Bird, to which they danced a swaying slow dance. "We wanted it to be fun and relaxed and not a performance," Heather says. "It was the first time during the wedding day that I was at ease: The hard part was over, and now I could just have a good time."

If you've hired a band, talk with your bandleader about how the song will sound, based on the instrumentalists, to make sure it's what you want. If you have a deejay, provide him with a CD of your preferred version of the song, especially if you've chosen a classic that's been recorded by many artists.

The more you practice, the more dancing together will become second nature -- and that, after all, is the idea. "You should look like you're in love, not like you're trying to remember steps," says Royston. Enjoy getting ready for your debut on the dance floor; few other wedding preparations offer the chance for such ebullient, joyous experimentation.

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