Helen Pegge is working to a deadline. It’s already Thursday evening in her textile design studio in London, and on Saturday morning she’s flying to Los Angeles to deliver a consignment. In her crammed basement office, staff are stitching and pressing and packing. Helen, though, seems in a different world. On iTunes, she’s put Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ on repeat, and at the far end of the studio she’s cleared a tiny space. And there, to the background whir of sewing machines and the hiss of steam irons, she and her fiancé Guy are dancing a rumba.
Well, sometimes you just have to prioritise. Helen, you see, has another deadline on the horizon: in two months, she and Guy will be getting married. And when it comes to the wedding dance they don’t want to end up just doing “that awkward shuffling around”, as Helen aptly puts it. So they’ve invited their friend Huw, who’s been learning ballroom dance for a couple of years, to teach them a few basic steps. He’s the one not hunched over a sewing machine who – with an instinctive understanding of the basis of all dance training – keeps telling them to do what they’ve just done, again. Helen and Guy are getting things wrong, then right, then – oops – wrong again, but all the time they’re laughing and nattering and trying things out. They look like they’re having a ball.
Still, why ‘Wicked Game’? Sure, the music is smooth and smoochy, but the lyrics are about heartbreak and deception (“And I don’t want to fall in love”). “Well,” explains Helen matter-of-factly, “we have really different tastes in music, but we both really liked that song.”
“At our wedding,” chips in her colleague Ros as she breezes past trailing armfuls of cloth, “we sort of fell around to ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince.”
“Then there was that couple who were both into heavy metal,” remembers Helen. “They just headbanged next to the speakers.” By way of demonstration, she puts her hands on her hips, sticks out her elbows, and leans forward to do some stiff, Status Quo-style torso jerks. And suddenly, smooth and smoochy seems just fine by itself.
As for the dance style, that was down to Huw, who said a rumba would suit the music. And indeed it does. Plus, it’s a dance that can be done very slow, with steady steps and plenty of opportunity for just swivelling on the spot. For Helen, this is a godsend. “Because by the time of the wedding,” she explains, “I’ll be six months pregnant.” Actually, that turns out to be good news as regards the wedding dress. Helen has opted for an Empire line: tucked in just below the boobs, with a loose, floaty skirt that hangs down to below the knee. Perfect for pregnancy and – with none of those meringuey ruffles, bustles, trains and what-have-yous – perfect for dancing.
Ruffles, trains, petticoats – when Brighton bride Francesca Baglione got married in 2007, she had the works. But it was going to take a lot more than that to come between her and her jive. But then, Francesca is a professional cabaret artist who also goes by the name of Miss High Leg Kick (still – because “Mrs High Leg Kick” doesn’t have the same ring) and has years of dance training behind her. “Which means,” she explains, “that I’m used to performing in some really big dresses and not being too, er, careful with them.” Her fiancé Richard, though untrained, had nevertheless performed comedy dances while touring with all-male cabaret troupe The Action Men. They’d chosen ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ by the Beach Boys for their wedding dance – a reminder of surfing holidays together. “It’s very romantic, but also lively and fun,” adds Francesca, “so it expressed our personalities. We’re both such show-offs…”
For their wedding, the show-offs naturally put on a show
For their wedding, the show-offs naturally put on a show. “We did lots of jumps and lifts and slides,” she remembers. “Sometimes we swapped roles – I carried him on my back. We put some surfing moves into the dance too.” How did the dress fare? “Oh, I just threw myself into everything, so the dress was really dirty by the end! I really wore it.”
For all the theatrical buzz of their wedding dance, it was the difference from her stage shows that Francesca cherishes. “Unlike performing professionally, the wedding dance is purely for pleasure. It’s just for you and your family and friends.” She also treasures another, unexpected aspect she discovered in the process. “There’s a lot of stress in planning a wedding. Having even a few private lessons with just us and the teacher turned out to be really precious. There’s so little time and space right before a wedding, but at the class it’s just you, doing the dance together.” All of that makes a crucial difference. It means their wedding dance wasn’t a showstopper by Miss High Leg Kick and Action Man; it was a showstopper by Francesca and Richard.
Different as they are, Helen and Guy and Francesca and Richard are part of a growing trend. More and more couples are putting extra thought and effort into the moment when, after the ceremony and before the party, the bride and groom dance together for the first time as a married couple. And an increasing number of them are getting professional help.
Sam Jennings is an RAD-trained teacher based in Cheltenham who taught her first wedding dance in 2004. A couple turned up at the church hall where she’d been giving a ballet class, and simply asked if she could teach them something to ‘More Than A Woman’ by the Bee Gees. Five years on, Sam now runs Beaux and Belles, her own specialist wedding dance company; she receives hundreds of enquiries a year, and has produced a special First Dance DVD for wedding couples. “As a teacher, you need the basic range of ballroom and Latin dance styles,” she says. “But you have to be creative, and adapt to the couples themselves.” Unlike with other dance classes, people at wedding dance classes aren’t generally looking to learn how to dance: they just want to look good on their wedding day. “Many people come to classes mainly because they’re worried about looking a disaster,” says Sam. “Or they’ve seen first dances and think: when it’s my wedding, I don’t want to look like that.”
Unsurprisingly, Sam has found that it’s usually the women who initiate the idea and who feel more at ease with the dancing. “But with the younger generation,” she says, “it’s increasingly the guys who make the first enquiry.”
Kele Baker agrees. A astute, plain-speaking American based at London’s Kensington Dance Studios, she still remembers the reactions she got when she took a stand at the Wedding Show in 2001. “From women it might be: ooh, good idea, but my boyfriend/fiancé will never do it. From men: no way, not on your life. Since then, and especially since Strictly Come Dancing began on TV, things have changed a lot. Strictly made dancing a bit more cool and glamorous. And blokes do it too.”
One of the trickiest aspects of couple dancing is the partnering, where traditionally the man leads and the woman follows. “Leading and following are about psychology, not gender,” states Kele emphatically. “Of course, women today are more used to making their own choices and decisions. So we use words like allow, permit, invite. If women have danced before but not partnered, they can get used to following the music rather than the partner. That’s a skill they have to relearn.“
In fact, partner dances can sometimes feel less about dancing than about partnering itself: how to adjust, communicate, accommodate. “Sometimes,” says Kele, “a couple will play the blame game. That is counterproductive, but you have a referee in the teacher. Sometimes couples like to play the blame game, and then you start wondering….” In general, though, teachers find that learning to partner has beneficial repercussions for the couples themselves: they work out ways of communicating, dealing with mistakes and differences. Some actually consider their classes as quality time together, sharing an activity during their busy lives – quite possibly on an equal footing if they’re both beginners.
Dancing together is an emotional and mental activity as well as a physical one – all of which makes the couple dance an unusually potent symbol at weddings. “A good wedding dance doesn’t have to be flashy,” says Kele. “When the audience can see the couple dancing a) together and b) to the music, it’s working. The flow feels right, they get it.”
Which means that ultimately, it’s not the steps that count, or which music you’ve chosen, or how your clothes look. It’s the synergy between you that show you’ve started out on the right foot. Or – hang on a minute – should that be the left one?