Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck recounts some alarming traditional marriage rites in his 1891 book, The History of Human Marriage. Contents include the bride or groom beating the other, shutting up the bride in a box, the use of animal blood…yikes! But Westermarck also has something to say about the reason for dancing at weddings.
Various rites are partly or exclusively fossilized expressions of such emotional states as sexual bashfulness, sorrow or anger, whilst others are expressions of joy or erotic feelings. To the latter class belong dancing, which forms a regular feature of wedding feasts in many parts of the world, and the sexual license in which the guests are often allowed to indulge. But dancing as a marriage rite may also, in particular cases, have a symbolic or magical significance, and, generally, be a method of attaining tumescence. And the sexual indulgence of the wedding guests may, on the principle of homeopathic magic, be a means of assisting bride and bridegroom in achieving the reproductive aims of their union.
In other words, dancing at weddings is fun, but not just fun. Metaphorically, dancing generates sympathetic magic to bless the sex life of the happy couple.
Westermarck thought that traditional marriage rites would gradually vanish as rational thought replaced magical ideas in the modern world. Instead, traditional rites have been replaced by highly commercialized and costly “white weddings” with fancy table decorations, expensive catered meals and everybody dressed in single-use formal clothing. It sometimes seems like these weddings are all ritual and no fun, and the main metaphor seems to be one of conspicuous consumption.
If you think of weddings in terms of metaphor it seems clear that obsessing about a fancy white dress is exactly the wrong way to go. It’s not only a childish princess fantasy, but a symbol of virginal Victorian purity. Who needs that? As Caroline Casey of the Mythological News Service says, “Metaphor is the incarnational garb whereby power enters the world.” And clearly the more desirable metaphor for a wedding is the metaphor of dance.
Unfortunately, wedding dancing can be more awkward than fun. Typically, strangers from many generations are thrown together and expected to dance spontaneously to antique pop music.
That’s why wedding planners should pay more attention to the quality of dancing. If you are going to spend $10K or so on a party it ought at least to be a good party.
Dress the part
First, always come prepared to dance. It may even be a good idea to practice dancing in the clothes you plan to wear because outfits that look great in front of a mirror are sometimes too confining or embarrassingly revealing on the dance floor. For the bride: Wedding dresses tend to be too poufy and long for more than stately waltzes. One friend who wore her mother’s wedding dress had it altered in order to solve the problem. During her first dance she twirled around and pulled off the overskirt to reveal a flirty short skirt beneath. The effect was fabulous!
It’s also a good idea to wear actual dance shoes—they have sturdy straps and non-stick soles and, often, extra padding for comfort. Character shoes are always appropriate; Argentine tango shoes have hard leather soles so you can walk outside, whereas ballroom and Latin dance shoes with suede soles can only be worn indoors; cowboy boots work well if it’s that kind of wedding.
Getting people onto the dance floor
Sometimes they are truly shy, but more often they are just waiting to be asked. Cruise ships deal with this by hiring dance hosts—usually middle-aged men whose job it is to dance with lone ladies. In the old days, callers or prompters led square dances so that everyone would know exactly what to do, and a caller is still a good bet if you like traditional dancing.
These are tried-and-true strategies to get people on the dance floor and you can adapt them to whatever kind of music and dancing you like. Ask your dancing friends to break the ice and keep things lively; announce specific dances that are likely to be popular or that can be easily learned; pick some tunes that will appeal to a wider audience; assign some of your most outgoing friends to encourage people to “follow the leader”; task members of your wedding party with inviting strangers to dance; start a conga line.
Organizing a wedding dance for people who don’t usually dance together is a bit of an art, but it’s worth it for the homeopathic magic. So, don’t be afraid of the Macarena. If you play it, they will dance.
Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a U of Utah librarian.