Just-married Debbie and Daniel Slagle were dancing a foxtrot to Nat King Cole's classic "Unforgettable" at their October 2008 wedding reception when the speakers suddenly blurted out the funky beats of Pink's "Get This Party Started."
The Chester couple acted shocked when the tempo changed during their first dance as husband and wife. But that was just a guise to fake out their wedding guests. In seconds, the Slagles spun out from each other and broke into an energetic freestyle routine.
"We are always the first ones on the dance floor," Debbie says, adding that Dan incorporated his signature techno-dance move into the routine. "The crowd went crazy. Everyone was laughing and clapping."
The Slagles aren't the only couple to turn their first dance into a staged spectacular. YouTube is filled with first-dance viral videos, with couples boogieing to everything from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" to Patrick Swayze's version of dirty dancing. The trend has even made the airwaves with TLC's Rock the Reception; on the new TV show, some of the hottest choreographers in the country teach couples first-dance routines.
"In the past five years, it's gotten more popular to learn specific dances or specific choreography for the first dance," observes Eleanor Robertson, owner of Rigby's Jig dance studio in Richmond. "It makes the reception special."
Traditionally, the bride and groom's first dance has been a slow one. "It's a dance that is symbolic of their relationship," says Veronica Braun, owner of Simply Ballroom.
Alana Malick and her new husband, Rhodes Ritenour, hoped to set a precedent for the future by making their first dance on Nov. 1, 2008, something special. "Dancing is something we can share and will do for a long time," Malick says.
The two decided to have Robertson choreograph their first dance after they saw other brides and grooms getting creative during their own receptions. "We really enjoy dancing, but we didn't know a lot of different types of dances," Malick explains. "We didn't have any structure. We wanted to make sure our first dance was special and fun for the guests to watch."
The couple's formal wedding reception was held in the grand Crystal Ballroom at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. They wanted their dance to match the elegance of the evening. "We didn't want it to look stiff, though," Malick says.
Both Malick and Ritenour are fans of country music, and Ritenour always assumed their first dance would be to a country song. "I thought I could relate to that better," he says. "But the more we learned, the more we realized that country wouldn't work."
After listening to several songs by popular crooners, the couple settled on "The Way You Look Tonight" by Frank Sinatra. While that song often is chosen for first dances, the most popular first-dance song, according to Robertson, is Etta James' "At Last." "Brides and grooms are looking for songs with words that are meaningful to them," she says. "They are looking for something sentimental instead of instrumental."
Often couples think they want to dance a traditional waltz at their reception, but that classic dance has a beat — three quarter notes in a measure instead of four — that isn't found in many of today's songs. As an alternative, some couples choose a foxtrot or a rumba. "We've seen just about everything you can see for the first dance, from traditional to whatever," Braun says. "The biggest trend we've seen is people wanting to start out with a traditional dance and break into something humorous."
Some couples, such as Medardo and Ana Luna, married in August 2008, include the entire wedding party in the first dance. The Lunas wanted everyone to dance the Viennese waltz to "The Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss. Bridesmaid Melissa Zaremba took lessons with the rest of the wedding party at Simply Ballroom. The group also learned two Latin dances, the merengue and bachata, for the reception.
"We were willing to do anything for Medardo and Ana, but after the first lesson, we thought, ‘There is no way we are going to learn this,' " Zaremba recalls. "We were practicing two to three times a week."
The women in the wedding party seemed to be more frustrated during lessons than the men, she recalls. "The men just wanted to have fun. We wanted to get it right."
Couples who have learned a choreographed dance understand there is more to the process than simply mastering dance steps. Everything from the bride's shoes to her hairstyle can be a consideration when choosing a dance. "Four-inch stiletto heels can be hard to dance in," Robertson says. "The wedding dress plays into it as well. A bustle train, for example, has to be taken into consideration. Sometimes a dress can be limiting when it comes to a bride raising her arms."
Couples should also think about the size of the dance floor and the type of ground underfoot at the reception. "They may be dancing their first dance on cobblestones or grass," Robertson says.
She and Braun both suggest that songs be limited to four minutes or less. "We try to keep it to a two- or three-minute routine," Braun says. "That seems like a long time when you are out on the floor."
Braun adds that she's had some unusual requests. One couple that she taught wanted to dance a Viennese waltz to a heavy-metal song. Another bride insisted on wearing pink clogs for her first dance. "We had to figure out a routine where she wasn't walking backwards and would fall out of her shoes," Braun says. "We had another couple that wanted to do the exact tango from the film Scent of a Woman."
Even though he wasn't anxious about taking ballroom lessons, Ritenour was glad that he did. "I really like to dance even though I am bad at it," he says. "The prospect of actually learning how to dance took away the intimidation. The end result for me was looking a lot less foolish than in the past."
Debbie Slagle had been trying to get Daniel to take ballroom classes for a couple of years. "When we decided to get married, I told him we had to take lessons," she says.
At first it was difficult for the husband-to-be. He had a hard time picking it up, but once he got the steps down, he did really well, Debbie says, adding that she's pleased with the final outcome. "I wanted our guests to leave the wedding saying that it was fun. I think our dance set that tone."