Saving the first dance

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / June 3, 2009
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The wedding dance has become a big deal. That's probably because of shows like "Dancing With the Stars" - and because wedding dances are often put on YouTube for repeat viewing by the family.

That's why couples spend hundreds of dollars to learn some fancy choreographed routine so that their first moves on the floor are smooth and fluid - maybe even competition worthy.

But not every couple is a forward-thinking one. Many wait until the last minute to learn their big dance. Those are the couples after my own heart, the ones who realize at the 11th hour that they're quite literally stepping on each other's toes.

Dance instructors around town tell me that every year, right about now, they get urgent phone calls from twosomes who realize a week before the weddings that while they've managed to plan everything from appetizers to the seating chart, they've forgotten that they're supposed to take to the floor and do something other than rock back and forth. They believe that within the span of an hour or so, they can learn how to move.

It's possible, but it's not easy. They have to be quick studies, like Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing." (Without the lift. No one expects miracles.)

"I had a couple on Friday that was getting married on Sunday," dance instructor Michelle Cloutier said. "They didn't have any experience. That was their first lesson."

Cloutier offers a speed course for these types of situations. The class is "for couples who want to avoid doing the 'high school clutch and sway,' " Cloutier says on her website. Apparently the old clutch-and-sway is unacceptable now that even Emmitt Smith has pirouetted on television.

The Wedding Dance Center at Ballroom Dance New England also offers a quick class for those getting married in days. "We just got two calls today for weddings that happen Saturday," said Deirdre Radler, owner and director of the center.

Radler is forgiving when it comes to the dawdlers. "They just get caught up with other wedding things they have to do. But they can still get a very good wedding dance if they come in and take one lesson."

For the record, Radler recommends calling for lessons three months before a wedding. She actually hears from many couples on the other end of the spectrum who call a year in advance. That's not necessary, unless the pair wants to learn more for fun. Three months equals one great wedding dance.

On a recent Saturday at the Ballroom Dance New England's Newton location, I watched Jim Pergolizzi and Laura Kelly, two 20-somethings, learn a routine they'd perform at their wedding the next week. They weren't asking for much - just some basic box steps, a few twists and turns, and, of course, a mildly dramatic dip. They explained that the Saturday lesson was the only real practice time they'd have.

"Where have you been?" asked instructor Paul Wisniewski, with some accusation and humor in his voice, as he helped Pergolizzi learn to lead as quickly as possible.

Wisniewski told me that Pergolizzi and Kelly were a best-case scenario. They'd taken lessons together before - not for a wedding dance, just for kicks - and knew some fundamentals. They had some rhythm. Usually the procrastinators are worse.

"It could get very bad," Wisniewski said. "It could be at the stage of doing nothing but the steps."

Still, to me, Pergolizzi and Kelly looked a little panicked. It took some time before they could move and smile comfortably at the same time. Over and over, Wisniewski would cue their wedding song, "You're All I Need to Get By," and they'd try again. In about an hour, they had learned to travel across the dance floor, to do a fancy entrance and a dip. I worried that they'd forget everything they learned as soon as they walked out the door.

Pergolizzi and Kelly told me that at the very least, they had learned enough to survive by winging it.

Sounds a lot like marriage.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at You can read her daily Love Letters dispatch and chat with her every Wednesday at 1 p.m. at