I’m doing some research on the “first dance” phenomenon at weddings and have not been able to find much in the way of why they happen or the historical precedent for doing so. Most of my searches are coming up dry - mostly articles on how to pick a song or etiquette. The closest I have found is this, but it isn’t particularly useful or detailed (and of course entirely devoid of references):
“The origin of the first dance is said to come from eastern European immigrants in America who danced at their weddings. As post World War 2 immigration slowed down and those immigrants grew into the middle class they brought the dance with them to the point of it becoming mainstream.” http://www.thefirstdance.com/faq.php
The next best is this tidbit, which seems dubious at best.
"The custom of a “First Dance” harkens back to ancient times when the “Bride Kidnapper” would show off his “hunting” skills by parading his “stolen” bride around, in front of his warrior friends, so they could see how well he had done. The feasting would begin immediately after this display. Today, the “First Dance” still traditonally marks the beginning of the reception. "http://www.hudsonvalleyweddings.com/guide/customs.htm
So I turn to the great minds at SDMB for wisdom and learning.
Perhaps you are overanalyzing this (and so might those web sites you posted).
Haven’t many/most wedding celebrations (or some equivalent of the reception) had dancing for millenia (dependant on local customs)? And doesn’t the first dance between a bride and groom as a newly married couple seem rather significant, so that some one (the leader of the band, the best man, the father of the groom/bride, or the Roman Empire’s equivalent of the DJ (you know Romans had to have dancing at their wedding celebrations) would call attention to it. This may not be as intutive or obvious as the importance of the first kiss (sorry, I’m being somewhat eurocentric here), but it seem pretty darn obvious, and over the centuries you can readily imagine it get ossified into the celebration, almost as a formalized rite.
Not just weddings but festivals in general. Dancing is part of what humans do when they celebrate.
Actually, the “formalized rite” of the first dance between bride and groom as the starting-point of the dancing in American wedding receptions is much more recent than that.
The 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquettemakes it clear that it was customary for wedding guests to start dancing before the bride and groom joined in:
So the bride and groom would dance with each other before dancing with anybody else, but there wasn’t a big ritualized display of the “First Dance” the way there is nowadays.
Which indicates that the “Bride Kidnapper parading his stolen bride” stuff as the alleged origin of the ritual “First Dance” in the OP’s second cite is pretty much unmitigated bullshit. (As are most pseudohistorical explanations casually deriving modern wedding traditions from vaguely identified “primitive”-sounding ancient customs.)
Thanks for the input. I’m intrigued by the Emily Post bit on etiquette. While I do agree that dance is a fundamental part of many celebrations, two people dancing alone is somewhat of an anomaly as far as dancing historically. Many folk dances, even the paired dances, usually involve several pairs of people dancing together. Even ballroom-esque partner dances (such as the laendler - which eventually morphed into the waltz) were done with a group of pairs. The development of the waltz later, breaking out of the set dances and into a led/follow dance, differentiated it from earlier dances.
Following up on KimStu reference from the 1920s, that the idea of the couple being highlighted and dancing alone together appears to be a relatively new invention and social. It makes me wonder about the wedding traditions dating from the 1800s and early 1900s and what types of dancing would be present at a reception/celebration among the upper and lower classes. Any kind of wedding the involves a “drawing room” is definitely for the wealthy.
GilaB - I would love to find a good resource for “first dance” customs around the world. However, most of my searches on other wedding customs do not mention the first dance specifically (so whether or not it is included would be conjecture).
I believe that roughly one third of marriages now are civil ceremonies, done in the registry office, clerk of court office, judges chambers, etc. So I’d think any “First Dance” would be pretty unlikely – most of those places don’t even have dance floor.
In the weddings I’ve attended in Spain, the closest thing to the “first dance” is a couple “opening the dance” - but that means one or two twirls before everybody else who wants to dance does so and it doesn’t have to be the merry couple. I’ve seen them opened by the groom and his mother, by the bride and her father, by the bride and her brother, by the matron and patron of honor (who may or may not be the mother of the groom and the father of the bride)… my brother was saved from opening his by the choice of a venue with no dance hall: after the feast ended, people who wanted to continue the party were simply left to their own devices (this is pretty common unless the feast has taken place in the middle of nowhere).
Our weddings usually separate the ceremony from the feast, so civil ceremonies here are as likely to have a feast and dance as religious ones.