What makes a good wedding reception dance? Not the reception itself, but specifically the dance. I have attended two weddings this season, and only have one more before the summer is over, but it’s been something that I’ve thought about at every wedding I’ve ever been to (that had a dance) and I want to try and dissect what exactly makes or breaks a reception dance.
I see a few very fundamental factors that need to be considered: audience, atmosphere, and the music itself. Let’s take a look at each.
This is where you need to start because these are the people who are going to be doing the actual dancing. If you are not putting out material that pleases them, you’ll lose them and subsequently, you’ll lose the dance. So you’ve got to read the room a little, see what age brackets are really represented, and even more importantly, what age brackets will get up and do the most dancing. This is a tough one because while weddings can skew younger or older, you’re guaranteed to have at least somewhat of a variety of people to satisfy. And you won’t be able to satisfy them all. Tough stuff. Also, you’ve got to read what sort of music your crowd will groove on. Is it a country crowd? Is it an old swing crowd? A very religious crowd? All this needs to be taken into account when choosing songs. More on that soon.
What kind of wedding is it? Religious, younger, older, traditional, alcohol, modern, big, small, dance floor, or a mix of some or all? All of these types and some extra ones will certainly affect how the dance goes. As I think about it, it’s kind of hard to actually qualify how exactly each of these components fits into making a great dance. In the most general sense, I would say the best fit for a killer dance is going to be young, mildly-liberally religious, big, and I’m going out on a limb for this one, no alcohol. Call me crazy, but all too often alcohol takes away from the good-natured vibe of a great dance. It makes non-drinkers uncomfortable, and there is nothing worse (for me) than dancing around/with people who have drunk themselves into the sleepy-eyed phase. I’ve only once seen alcohol at a wedding done with class and taste and it contributed to the overall party feeling of the dance.
Another important aspect that falls under this category is the DJ. Is it a professional wedding DJ or a friend of the bride or groom? For a couple that wants their dance to go a specific way, this is a very important thing to take into account. There is no right answer here, and there are many pros and cons to each. Quick list:
Pro DJ Pros:
1. Equipment – Any pro DJ worth their cost will provide an excellent sound system that should not give you any problems during the dance. No feedback, killer song transitions, etc.
2. Pacing – Almost every pro DJ I’ve ever seen keeps the whole reception moving so much better than friend DJs. Not to say it can’t be done by friend DJs, but for the most part, pro DJs seem to have a better sense of how to keep things from getting awkward. Announcing the bridal party, announcing what’s coming next (cake cutting, first dances, garter/bouquet toss, etc.)
3. Song selection – Any pro DJ worth their cost will have an extensive song collection that will include an array of genres, years, artists, etc. Any guest can make a request and it will almost certainly be available to play (unless it’s on the bride/groom’s don’t-play list).
4. Groovin’ – This relates to the pacing point but more specifically to the dance itself. Almost unequivocally, a pro DJ will have more experience than a friend DJ in terms of what songs will keep people interested and on the floor. Most friend DJs (with few exceptions) don’t know what to play next to keep the floor busy and that’s a detriment to the flow of the dance.
Pro DJ Cons:
1. Price – ALWAYS more expensive than friend DJs. No exception.
2. Familiarity – Pro DJs should be just that: professional. They will almost certainly not know the marrying couple personally, and for that reason, won’t have an intimate knowledge of the reception and the potential guests that will be there. They have to go completely off the must-play/don’t-play lists the couple makes beforehand and then read the room once they arrive.
Friend DJ Pros:
1. Familiarity – A repeating point from before, but this is the biggest draw that I can see to having a friend do the DJing. Friends know what kind of music you like, you can implore them to play exactly what you want when you want.
2. Price – Way cheaper than a pro DJ. Obviously.
Friend DJ Cons:
1. Skill – All too often with friend DJs, there are far too many uncomfortable song transitions, and it’s almost always due to the fact that the friend is working off either the bride or groom’s laptop connected to the PA system, probably playing songs off a playlist made in advance by one of the two that is entitled “Wedding playlist.” Friend DJs are usually doing it for the first (and possibly only) time and this lends itself to a fair amount of poor song selections and bad transitions. Doesn’t make people want to dance.
2. Equipment – Most friend DJs are first-timers and won’t be bringing more than a laptop/iPod to plug into the PA system and going off a pre-made playlist. This won’t always be a big deal but if there is a technical issue, they probably won’t know how to handle it.
3. Pacing – More having to do with the reception overall than the dance specifically, friend DJs don’t often do announcing in a way that makes things flow the best. Wedding guests prefer to know what’s going on rather than guessing what’s happening when.
4. Groovin’ – While I have seen exceptions, most friend DJs just don’t know what songs are good dance songs and what are not. It’s a very complex art to play songs that will get into people’s heads and make them get up and dance and overcome the fear of being judged by other people not dancing, and most friend DJs are first-timers and haven’t had practice playing different songs to get people dancing.
So it’s obvious from my list that I would go for a pro DJ over a friend DJ. Duh, we had a pro DJ at our wedding and while he wasn’t without mistakes, I was way happier with his performance than I would’ve been with a friend DJ. Not to say I’ve never seen a friend DJ kill it, but it’s such a rare occurrence.
Probably the most important aspect of the whole event, because barring a few crazy exceptions, almost any audience can be moved to dance if the right music is played. Great wedding tunes are hard to pin down, but there are some tunes that I’ve seen fail more than once, and I doubt could ever really work. This is in no way a comprehensive list of songs about which I can opine, but these are the only ones coming to mind this second.
– Party In The U.S.A.
One of those weird songs that is an absolutely great tune, one of the best hooks around when it came out, but I don’t personally think it makes the best dance tune. It will certainly get people dancing, which I guess is the ultimate goal of any song played at a dance, but rather than having a killer beat that facilitates fun dancing, it’s just a little too slow and ends up leaving the people on the dance floor basically moving slowly and singing the song to each other in order to not feel uncomfortable. So it’s not my favorite. But it is a good song to play to attract people to the floor.
– Mambo No. 5
I love this song. Good rhythm, fun melody, it’s a great dance tune. And as it’s a one-hit wonder, everybody knows it and it will both draw people to the floor and keep them there.
– She Bangs
This is a weird song, because I love it, and I just wish more people enjoyed dancing to it as much as I do. I think it’s just barely too fast for its own good.
– Cupid Shuffle/Cha Cha Slide
I’ve got both love and hate for these tunes. They are reception dance staples, and for that reason lots of people hate them. But they hold so much merit because of how easy they are to pick up and dance along with. People who would never dance will get up and dance because they are being told exactly what to do and can copy everybody else. There is no sense of “everybody’s watching me” that often keeps more reserved people off the floor. And if you are a good dancer (Meredith Bell), man these ones are fun to play around with.
– I Gotta Feeling
Another reception dance staple. Not in love with this one, and I think it might have even been played twice at our own reception dance (bad form DJ Tony). But again, the merit is there because it pulls people onto the floor. And it’s got a fun kind of message for a reception dance. I’m mainly just annoyed everybody gets excited to dance to a song featuring vocals by Fergie.
– Don’t Stop Believin’
I despise this song, and I have always wondered why it would ever show up on a DJ’s playlist. I get that everybody knows it and can sing along, but it is, in no imaginable way, a good dance song, and is not even a good closer. People just have to sing it to each other and can hardly move around the floor in an awkward way with this one. So bad.
– Hey Ya!
Another solid hit that’s not often thought of to play. Who doesn’t love to shake it, sh-shake it, shake it, sh-shake it, shake it, sh-shake it, shake it, shake it, sh-shake it, shake it like a Polaroid picture?
Who the heck knows how to make the dance great? A DJ could play a string of just the best songs you’ve ever heard, and not get a single butt off their seat and onto the floor. On the other hand, the songs could all suck, and with the right crowd, they will fight through it and enjoy themselves on the floor (see: us at the last wedding we were at). Whatever the case, reception dances are so much fun and a great way to celebrate happy nuptials. I’d only ask for She Bangs to be played more often.