Dance Workouts

9 Ways To Calm Your First Dance Nerves, Even if You Have Two Left Feet

Photo: Getty Images/Kelvin Murray
Weddings can pose a unique challenge for those who don't love being the center of attention. Whether you identify as an introvert or just dislike the limelight, a day that puts you center stage can be a lot to handle. "Sometimes one or both partners are not used to being in the spotlight, and now you’re having a wedding so of course you’re going to be spotlit," says Kim Sakren, a wedding dance choreographer who’s prepped more than 2,000 couples for their big day. 

Out of all the many wedding traditions, the first dance can be the most nerve-wracking. That's because dancing in front of other people is a uniquely vulnerable moment. All eyes are on you, without the distractions of speeches or vows to pay attention to. And as the famous modern dancer Martha Graham put it: "The body never lies," making it hard to hide those jitters. 

For people who’d never take a Zumba or dance cardio class by choice—or willingly make your way to the dance floor without a hefty dose of peer pressure—this is one ritual that can feel downright daunting. 

So what can you do to calm those first dance nerves?

1. Acknowledge your anxiety

Whenever Sakren meets a couple in which one or both partners are obviously uncomfortable, she starts off with a convo about what's making them nervous. "Most often, they won't tell me but I can see it," she says. "We chat about it so they're not hiding their feelings." Once any fears are out in the open, they're much easier to address—you can zero in on the most nerve-wracking components honestly and figure out how to manage them as a team (whether with a dance instructor's help or just between you and your partner).

2. Figure out your choreography comfort zone

Are you someone who would feel better planning a highly-choreographed piece from start to finish so you know each step of the way, or would just choosing one partner to lead then going with the flow feel less intimidating? "When people say 'choreography,' that's where some couples get fearful," says Sakren. "So maybe I'll create a beginning, then leave the body of the dance loose." Of course, you can also skip choreography altogether if the idea of whipping out moves in front of family and friends sounds like too much pressure. There's always the option for a simple, swaying slow dance.

3. Know—and love—your song

Spend the time to search for a piece of music you both love; it should be something you can lose yourselves in. For couples who can't agree on a song, Sakren suggests a mashup, transitioning from one to the next after a minute or so.

Once you've chosen, listen to it as often as possible, especially if you go the choreographed route. "The song will be your audio road map: 'I know on this lyric, I'm supposed to give her a turn,'" explains Sakren.

4. Make a plan for when things go off track

Even those who love dancing can get tripped up in the spotlight. Whether you step on your partner's feet, miss that dip, or forget what step is supposed to come next, it's likely that not all is going to go as planned. (Which, sorry to say, is just a microcosm of the rest of your wedding day.)

Make sure you know how you're going to recover. Have an easy step you'll return to until you can find your way back to the choreography, or just prepare to laugh off any stumbles. Remember: "No one else knows what your dance is supposed to look like," says Sakren. "Just keep smiling and dancing."

5. Practice, practice, practice

The more you run through your dance, the more comfortable you will feel performing it at your reception. (Muscle memory is a real thing!) Even if you aren't planning to pull out any fancy steps, it will help to get used to dancing together. Sakren suggests making it fun: Get your groove on for a more active take on date night. (Don't be afraid to have a glass of wine first.) "One of my students told me he took her on a picnic and they practiced in the park," Sakren says.

6. Watch it on your phone

Sakren films her students dancing so she can help them perfect their form. Having your dance recorded also gives you a chance to watch it on your phone to remind you of your plan right before the DJ calls you out to the floor.

7. Rehearse in front of other people

Practicing your dance with the instructor or at home won't mimic the stage fright you might feel while letting loose in front of other people. "Have a practice at the venue, on the floor you'll be dancing on, in the shoes you'll be wearing," suggests Sakren. Not only will this give you a better sense for how you will feel dancing in the space (and if your shoes are too slippery), if there are other people walking around, you'll get to experience being watched. Another option is to practice in a free room at the gym, or outside at a park.

8. Make it your own

There's no rule book that says you can't change the tradition. Maybe you only do 30 seconds of a first dance after a grand entrance. Maybe you invite the kids at the reception to dance with you. Heck, maybe you invite everyone to the dance floor so you're not up there all by yourselves. Or, if neither of you are feeling the dancing vibes, maybe you replace a first dance altogether with something like a hula hoop contest or a slideshow set to your favorite song.

9. Focus on each other

"This is advice I give brides and grooms: Once you’re out there, all you have is whatever your plan was, and each other," says Sakren. "Don't lock eyes with anybody else—if you're looking out, look above their heads. Be in your dance bubble together, stay focused on each other. That’s what people want to see anyway—you dancing your romance."

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