It’s the single most terrifying thing a parent can hear: “Mommy mommy! Heeeelp! …Daddy’s doing the Macarena!!”
That’s right, couch potatoes—it’s wedding time. Time to slip on those comfy dance shoes and slip off those itchy inhibitions. Jane Goodall might think she broke new ground in mammalian research, but she never crashed a wedding reception in the third quarter of an open bar. So a Tanzanian chimp can sign ‘I love you’? Big whoop. If you want to see the best that humanity has to offer, look no further than a Minwaxed parquet floor and a thumping remix of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”
Ever since early man learned to beat a stick on a rock, some guy has embarrassed his family by dancing to it. The primordial urge to shake your booty can be traced back thousands of years, when cave dwellers learned to ward off strangers by loudly grunting and jumping around like maniacs. Luckily, not much has changed.
Few theorems apply universally across our species. One of them is this: If you can dance, you know it. If you can’t, you definitely don’t.
The after-vows hoedown is often a hotbed of rhythm-based research and enlightenment. Even though the behavioral microscope is flipped up that night, someone is still taking lab notes. In the petri dish of wedding receptions, you have to ask yourself one question: “Am I going to be a productive ribosome in this glorious mass cell fission, or a sloshy paramecium who accidentally self-replicates and spills mitochondria all over his host?”
The good and bad news is that a nuptial bash is the only secure place for your Tony Manero fetish. A wedding reception is a unique occurrence, in that it allows people to freely express themselves, while providing a safety net for their sweaty gyrating ego. Guests feel a natural camaraderie with each other. Family and friends would rather celebrate your dance form than scorn it…at least until you’re out of earshot. But don’t be fooled: Whip out your Sexyback version of the Ukranian Hopak dance at your local nightclub, and you’ll see how quickly you’re rewarded with eternally-mandated abstinence.
So if you like to swing those hips and are tired of running up against public indecency laws, attend a wedding. Chances are, you’ll be in very good company. And for once you may not even be the one everyone whispers about.
See that guy in the corner downing a pitcher of mai tais while covertly checking the tensile strength on his cummerbund? He’s a Dance Nazi. In two minutes, he’s going to be doing a scissors-split over the bride’s head while ripping a serious Michael Flatley through a circle of mildly frightened gawkers. These dudes live by the knowledge that they could rule the world if only our social strata was ordained by who can “bring it” on the dance floor.
“There is often a guy with incredible athleticism, who waits for a Michael Jackson [song] before breaking out the worm, or a head spin, or maybe the splits,” offers Colorado WPJA member Adam Welch. “I've seen Russian dancing, flips…all sorts of moves you know take a lot of practice. Then, of course, they always act like they just thought of it.”
Welch knows all about nurturing your inner-Baryshnikov, as evidenced by his award-winning photo. He remembers how this one guest pulled a girl into the center of the dance floor, and “then mimicked like he was recording her with an old time movie camera.”
On the other end of the shuck-and-jive spectrum is the Party Martyr. The last time his feet were moved by music was when he accidentally tripped over a jukebox. He reluctantly shuffles with his partner for a few songs before slinking back to the warm safety of anonymity. He doesn’t want to scuff up his loafers, because he’s returning them for a full refund tomorrow.
Weddings are also a great place to witness the coronation of the Dancing Queen. “There's always at least one bridesmaid in every bridal party that fits this description,” says WPJA photographer Bill Wang of New York. “She’s been looking forward to getting her groove on since she was told that her friend was getting married.” Hey, you’re only going to wear that dress once; you might as well make it whimper.
This is only a small sampling of the many species you’ll encounter on the big night. To assist you in properly recording the various classes of wedding reception dancers, please refer to the handy sidebar included with this article.
All right, you have a grab bag of dance styles, a great DJ and a toasty false sense of security. Sounds like a recipe for a perfect storm, right? Almost. It’s just missing one tiny ingredient…
“Alcohol. That’s all it is,” says California WPJA photographer Matt Kim.
Just how important is the divine elixir? “Very,” affirms Welch. “Even the most uninhibited dancers can’t get into their groove unless the dance floor is packed. Which requires all those inhibited people to at least be out there, and that requires alcohol.” Proving the old axiom that you can catch more flies with Goldschlager than you can with vinegar.
But be forewarned: mixing booze with boogie can get messy. Pound too many tall boys before hitting the floor, and you’ll be bumping shoes like an Idaho senator in an airport men’s room.
Kim recalled one reception where the father of the groom got pickled. He started dancing with another female guest while trying to flip up her dress for the camera. “He kept pointing at me to take a picture,” Kim cringed. It wasn’t even a question for the veteran wedding photojournalist: “I’m not gonna take that picture.” Too bad. It would have made a nice shot for the judge to staple to the guy’s restraining order.
Capturing these ethereal creatures of the dance in their natural habitat is a tough job, even for a professional. Witness the winning photo from wedding photographer Jennifer Bebb, of British Columbia, who caught her bride in the middle of the hunt. As Bebb related, “Suddenly the girls started busting out the ‘tiger’ move. They were growling and everything. It was just priceless!” Pity the hapless guest who unwisely broke out the “antelope” move.
“I try to scan the floor constantly, and I can pick them out pretty quickly,” confides Kim, explaining how he captures moments like his award-winning shot. The girl in the photo appears to be having fun, but Kim admits that she seemed a little worried about her arm being pulled out. That would have made for an awkward bouquet toss.
At a reception that Wang was covering, an arm was the last thing he worried about his subject pulling out. As Wang recalls from his winning photo, “He started his turn by grabbing himself and hopping into the center of the (dance) circle; I fell to the floor and created this image.” Without the environs of a wedding celebration, that same move usually nets you an overnight stay in the pokey.
As you’ll find out, reception dancers are a fun and varied lot. And no matter what happens, those few hours of closing your eyes and letting loose will create some of the most indelible moments of the wedding. And quickly reveal which parts of the family tree got Dutch Elm disease.
And if you’re not a friend of the liquid courage, but still suffer from a touch of dance anxiety, don’t knock the idea of getting professional dance lessons. Just think what they could have done for Britney Spears.
In parting, if you’re planning to break one off on the dance floor, take stock of your motives. Have fun, but don’t feel pressured to impress anybody. No one wants to be the page of the wedding album titled: “Who knew you could even reach that part of the body?” Remember, folks, the Electric Slide is for professionals and inebriates only. For Pete’s sake, think of the kids.
A FIELD GUIDE TO COMMON INDIGENOUS SPECIES ON WEDDING RECEPTION DANCE FLOORS
—by Jeff Corriveau for the Wedding Photojournalist Association