For most, the opening notes of Etta James’s “At Last” instantly conjure memories of all the beautiful first dances we’ve witnessed as wedding guests. (This tune’s exuberant yet sultry feel and romantic lyrics have made it a popular first-dance accompaniment for generations.) Still, even the most seasoned wedding attendees may not realize how much care and effort it can take behind the scenes to create a gorgeous first dance. Many soon-to-be brides and grooms now readily invest significant time and energy in carefully choreographed (no pun intended) first dance preparations.
Sasha Bylim, co-owner of Tarrytown’s Fred Astaire Dance Studio, has certainly noticed a trend: “Typically, couples reach out [to a dance studio] about six months before their weddings. Most couples take ten to twenty lessons; some take more.”
He and his wife Olga — with whom he helms the Tarrytown studio — will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next year. They worked together to create original choreography for the first dance at their own wedding over three decades ago, a memory that Sasha recalls fondly: “The dance was the waltz because it was our favorite.” Labor-intensive first dance prep, once mostly the province of professional dancers like the Bylims and dedicated dance fans, has since surged in popularity.
Just like the Bylims, today’s engaged couples love the process of selecting a first dance song that really speaks (or rather, sings) to them. This emphasis on the uniqueness and individuality of a couple’s first dance seems apropos in an era when many couples opt to write their own vows and some even eschew a traditional wedding cake in favor of a trendy dessert bar. Björn Van Wyngaardt, a wedding planner popular amongst Westchesterites preparing to tie the knot, regularly gives the following advice to couples feeling uncertain about choosing a first dance song: “A good first dance song has special meaning to your love story.” Jacqueline Vasquez, a certified wedding and event planner who has consulted on many Westchester nuptials, agrees. “As couples prepare for their first dance, they should avoid trying to be like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Barack and Michelle Obama,” she says. “They should be themselves.”
For couples with an independent spirit, sometimes going it alone (as a couple, rather) instead of opting for ongoing professional coaching can be a fun and fitting choice. For Alexander Toth and Maggie Hegarty (who became Maggie Toth during an outdoor ceremony in Cold Spring last August), choreographing and rehearsing on their own turned out to be the key to a rewarding first dance prep experience. “We started with a professional dance instructor,” Hegarty says, “but after our first lesson we decided we wanted something a bit more casual. We cleared a space in the living room of our one-bedroom, experimented with some moves, and put together simple choreography.” Without missing a musical or conversational beat, Toth adds, “Sometimes keeping it simple is the best approach.”