Once vows and rings have been exchanged, dinner has been served and the wedding cake has been cut, it’s time for the bride and groom to share one of their first special moments together as a married couple. At this point the lights go down and music begins to play. It’s time for the first dance.

Be Prepared for the Dance of a Lifetime

The first dance is a deeply intimate moment and a highlight of the wedding day. It’s beautiful and romantic. It’s a couple in love, lost in music.

This special moment can also be deeply stressful, especially for someone who is shy or not a dancer. There may be a photographer’s camera clicking, or a videographer following the couple. And for the bride, there’s the concern of tripping in front of hundreds of friends and family members on the hem of the most expensive dress they’ve ever worn.

Fortunately, it only takes a little knowledge and some preparation to make your first dance fun, relaxing and memorable.

Why Weddings Have First Dances

Dancing is an essential part of all types of celebrations worldwide. In Europe and North America, formal dances and balls were greatly anticipated social gatherings for centuries. Famous English novelist Jane Austen wrote, “to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.”

In her time, a ball always was “opened” by the highest ranking guests present. They were the first two on the dance floor, and when the music started they were the first to dance. This custom lives on in weddings’ first dance tradition.

What is Good Music for a First Dance?

The song choice is up to the couple. The classic “Emperor Waltz” by Johann Strauss II traditionally was played at the openings of royal balls in the past. It remains a majestically beautiful melody perfectly suited for one of the high points of your wedding celebration.

These days, of course, a waltz isn’t necessary to have a ball; your first dance song can fall under whatever style of music you like best, whether it’s country, rock or rap. You also can choose a familiar love song to slow dance to, which will allow you to take a breather from the hectic pace of the day and spend a romantic moment together before returning to the guests. Many couples turn to the classics for slow dance songs. You can’t go wrong with a popular Elvis Presley, Etta James or Nat King Cole tune.

When choosing the song for your first dance, consider:

  • Your special song, if you have one. Perhaps it’s the first one you and your partner danced to, or one that’s tied to a cherished shared memory.
  • Your wedding theme. A Scottish wedding deserves a Scottish dance. A Renaissance- or Antebellum-themed wedding wouldn’t be complete without historically authentic music.
  • An original song. For example, if someone in your family is a musician or songwriter, they may be honored to write an original song for your wedding gift.
  • Honoring someone special. For instance, if your’s or your partner’s parents can’t be there on the wedding day, you could choose their favorite song or one from their era.

Keep in mind that the length of the song you choose will determine the length of the dance. Four minutes may not sound like a long time, but time tends to slow down when you’re in the spotlight. And if the bride is wearing a floor-sweeping, full-skirted ball gown, some dances, such as foxtrots and jigs, will be flat out dangerous. The bride should be able to dance comfortably.

If you’re still stumped about which song to use, don’t worry. Popular music is full of romantic ballads and dance tunes that are practically made for celebrations. Sit down as a couple and spend some time looking through your music libraries or searching online for the perfect song. And while you’re at it, try out a few dance moves together.

Alternatives for Those Who Don’t Want to Dance or Can’t Dance

Dancing is no longer the essential social skill it once was. Many dance studios now offer classes specifically for couples getting married, and they often will teach you how to dance to music you pick out. Dance lessons also can be a wonderful way for couples to spend time together during the wedding planning process.

If dance lessons aren’t appealing or aren’t available close by, choose a song that makes it easy to hold each other and slow dance together.

And if you really can’t dance, you don’t have to give up the first dance tradition entirely. With some creativity, couples can still celebrate it without taking a single step. One way of side-stepping the spotlight while still honoring the tradition is to let the longest-married couple at the wedding take the first dance in your place and afterward have them share their marriage advice.

Who Dances After the First Dance?

Traditionally, the bride dances with their father after the first dance. Then the groom and their mother will join in either after a few minutes or when the next song starts. The parents’ dance is last. Couples who come from nontraditional or blended families may want to consult with family members to work out a plan for these dances, or to decide whether to include them at all.

Older books about etiquette, such as Emily Post’s appropriately titled “Etiquette,” detail the traditional dances that follow the parents’ dance. Those include the best man dancing with the bride, the other groomsmen dancing with the bride, the groom dancing with the maid of honor and the groom dancing with the other bridesmaids.

Modern weddings, however, often open the dance floor to guests after the first few traditional dances. Your DJ or wedding band can advise you on current popular wedding music and common local dance traditions.

The bottom line is that it’s the couple’s day to celebrate. The music that’s play, the first dance song and the guests who are honored are all up to the couple. Tradition and popularity can provide guidance, but the first dance can create a very special memory if the couple takes the time and effort to make it a unique experience.