If you missed Part 1 of this series, click here.
Last time I touched upon the fact that, sometimes, the wedding reception takes on a life of its own and doesn’t reflect the bride and her whole context. There are many factors that can come into play to make it difficult for a bride to hold on to her vision or pull off the event that she really would want.
For one thing, it can be difficult to balance the desires of the parents of the bride with the wishes of the bride herself (sometimes they don’t quite align). The parents might be thinking of entertaining their friends, while the bride and groom are thinking of entertaining theirs. Often, the things that appeal to one generation don’t totally suit another, especially when it comes to the way that our culture tells us how to party and have fun.
But the best kind of party is one that encompasses the whole community. You, the bride and groom, will have the most fun if all your guests are enjoying themselves.
In other words, another factor in making your wedding reception the one that you want is that it be family-friendly.
After all, your wedding is about you and your groom being married, representing the possibility of a new family. A wedding day is essentially about family. And your family are the first people you think of when you make up the guest list.
Why, then, is it so difficult to have a party that your grandmother, your young nephew, and your friends can all enjoy? The magazine guides to the “Perfect Reception” don’t usually help you out here, because they’re not sufficiently grounded in reality and they’re more about impressing people than celebrating with them. Again, you need to get back to what is authentic to you and yours, and that means having a celebration that all your loved ones, no matter their age, can enjoy.
Here are some tips for a good-times, authentic reception that is also family-friendly:
1. Be as inclusive as you can with your invitations – especially for kids.
The children in your life might not be the first to cross your mind when you draw up your guest list. But don’t overlook them – your friends’ children, your nieces and nephews, the little ones you babysit. They are part of your community, so they belong in an authentic celebration.
If you can afford it, and if circumstances allow (and they may not — I understand!), invite as many young people and children as you can. They might add some noise and maybe even a little rowdiness, but they will also add joy and liveliness. They will be some of your most enthusiastic celebrators and they will contribute immensely to the proper spirit of the day — and help your guests avoid devolving into a “college party” vibe on the dance floor.
2. Set the tone of the party with a greeting.
Whenever possible, the father of the bride should open the reception with a greeting to the guests and a toast to his daughter, the groom, and the mother of the bride. When the dad is there giving his blessing and being a loving presence, he is defending the event from shenanigans.
Your friends wouldn’t get rowdy, crude, and drunk at a party that your dad was throwing if he was standing right there; they’d only do that if they sensed that he was absent or didn’t care. So ask him to open the reception as a sign that he cares.
If your dad is absent for whatever reason, think about who else in your life is an appropriate authority figure, and ask him to perform this role at your reception.
3. Set the tone of the meal with a grace. Or: invite your priest/religious leader.
The religious leader who officiates your wedding should absolutely be invited to the reception. And the reception should be a party at which he feels welcome and comfortable. One way to ensure the latter is to call the attention of the guests and have him lead a grace before the meal (right after dad gives his greeting/toast is a good time for this, or it can be the greeting in the case that you want dad’s toast to come later). Bring the tone that was just set in the ceremony into the reception hall by beginning with a prayer, and it will go a long way in contributing to the joy of the whole celebration.
Bonus: this can be a great way to include a priest or minister to whom you’re close but didn’t have celebrate your wedding.
4. Consider the lighting.
An event hall that has no natural light has some advantages, but is trickier to work with in a few ways. For one thing, the DJ or emcee will definitely be tempted to use artificial light to generate a certain atmosphere that might not actually be the one you’re going for.
Because of a lack of a strong dancing culture in most American communities, many people are nervous to get started dancing. One popular way to get around this is to dramatically darken the environment so that people feel more hidden and are therefore more willing to get up on the dance floor. This can work to a point, but in most cases I’d say it’s preferable to be able to see all your friends while dancing, and also to maintain a pleasant atmosphere for those who aren’t dancing.
Consider this: while the disco light comes down and the strobe lights are flashing (and the volume is cranked up), is your grandmother able to continue her conversation at her table? Is that priest from table No. 3 suddenly squirming in his collar and looking for the exit? And how about those kids you invited – are they at risk for being trampled if this really gets going?
As much as I’m a fan of taking measures to get folks to dance, I’d recommend sticking to bright, friendly lighting, and supplementing natural light rather than supplanting it, whenever possible. Go for warm and festive lighting rather than anything intense.
I have some other thoughts for getting folks to break the ice on the dance floor, which brings us to…
5. Music is (almost) everything.
I used to fantasize, many years before I even met the Artist, about the kind of music I’d have at my wedding reception. In an ideal world, I would have had a rotation of an Irish band, a Big Band (jazz), and a small orchestra for Viennese Waltz, as well as maybe a cover band to get some of my favorite party songs in — or maybe, you know, a band that could have done all of the above.
In real life, most receptions will end up with a DJ. In the case of us married LMLD girls, it’s been a playlist manned by a friend or a brother, and that’s been lots of fun too.
A live band or a DJ is preferable in many ways, but if you go with one of these, you need to be very clear about expectations and aware of potential downsides (which you can avoid with clear, advance communication).
5a. Bands have their own thing that they’re doing; you’re hiring them not just for their music but for their whole schtick and their performance. They will likely be more of a show, drawing the attention of the whole event to themselves. If that’s what you’re into and you’ve accounted for it, then that’s great and it should be awesome. But just be sure that it’s what you want and it reflects you (as in, the collective you), lest you sacrifice authenticity. The same goes for some DJs, who can be great entertainers if they’re good at their job, and terrible monopolizers if they’re not.
5b. You must have a NO PLAY list. Do not leave all the selection up to your musical vendor. If a stranger is going to be providing your music (or even if it’s a friend), you need to be extremely clear about what it is that you do and do not want to hear. Go ahead and write down a list of songs that would not be appropriate, so there’s no confusion about the matter, or ask the vendor to provide you with a list of all possible selections so you can cross some out.
Too many brides have been surprised and upset by music they find themselves hearing at their own weddings. Having standards about what will be played is a big part of keeping your reception family-friendly, comfortable and fun for all.
5c. Try to emphasize dance music over “party music.” There are a lot of songs out there that are standard for weddings due to their relentless beat or no better quality than simply that they are well known (not well-liked, just well-known). People tend to fall back on music that they know because familiarity has that effect.
But these songs may not necessarily be what you want.
If you want a fun and memorable celebration, find music that you like and that will be fun to dance to.
At first, your guests may even feel a little lost if the selection doesn’t immediately go to “Cha Cha Slide,” but chances are that most of them will quickly embrace a playlist that’s lively, feel-good, and fun — if they see that you are embracing it.
The truth is that there is a limit to how much people want to sing along to the very same songs at every wedding, especially if they’re attending many weddings in a given year!
Some suggestions for artists who I think have a cross-generational dance appeal (and these are just my taste, so I’m not setting this forth as any definitive collection): Nat King Cole, Michael Buble, Adele, Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, Sam Cooke, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Gloria Gaynor, Josh Turner, the Gypsy Kings…
6. Be bold and creative in encouraging dancing.
Although many people are shy or even hesitant to dance, most people do want do be part of the party on the dance floor, at least for some of the night. I know that it’s standard to consider alcohol as the go-to dance enabler, but doing so comes with some risks. I think there are other ways that are just as effective and help to keep the atmosphere a little cleaner than relying just on beer.
For most people, the primary obstacle to dancing is not knowing how to dance. A great way around this is to give people a little instruction to get them going (why do you think people fall back on Cha-Cha-Slide? it’s a song that literally spells out instructions!) or an outlet that requires no actual dance skill at all.
Although it may at first seem clunky to take time in a party to give a dance lesson, don’t be afraid to get it out there and push through it. Anyone who has done social dancing of any kind knows that every night of good dancing starts with a little instruction, whether it’s salsa, ballroom, swing, or folk dancing.
If you can enlist someone who knows how to lead a short demo or lesson in a dance (really any kind of dance, as long as it’s something authentic, and not too complicated), have them gather the group up and offer their bit before getting the music going for real. If nothing else, this will get your guests on their feet and break the ice. If the men are already up and moving, they are much more likely to go ahead and ask the girls for a dance.
As for an outlet that requires no skill at all: play a dance game or give your guests some type of challenge that they can laugh over, and watch the party blossom from there. During my reception, I had all willing couples enter a “most outrageous tango” competition. There were some guests who actually knew how to tango, but most of those who entered were just having fun with it, and we rewarded those who were the zaniest, not technically the best. We did it elimination style (tapping out one couple at a time until just two were left, and then selecting a winner), and it was a blast that really got people into the dance spirit!
If a good number of your guests aren’t coming from too far away, it might work to have a pre-wedding party a week or two before the event to learn some contra steps or practice swing moves!
7. Have your bridal party dress modestly.
An unwritten rule of weddings is that the bridal party is responsible for setting the tone of the celebration at the reception and facilitating good cheer and good dancing. It is difficult for bridesmaids to be exemplary if their dress is too revealing or too uncomfortable for them to be at ease. Do them (and yourself and all your guests) a favor by choosing modest dresses, and then when they’re making their rounds in the party and getting other guests dancing, they’ll be encouraging a warm and fun atmosphere rather than… something else.
8. Be prudent about alcohol service.
Here’s the thing: if you want your party to be family-friendly, you can’t have people making a mess of themselves. It’s one thing for folks to kick back and loosen up over the course of the evening; it’s another to have your lovely event take a sharp turn from fun to college friends raving and Uncle So-and-So being dragged out the back way.
Think carefully about who your guests are and what, and how much, will be appropriate to serve them. Perhaps you’d like to limit your drink list to no hard liquor. Maybe you’ll set a cut-off point at a certain hour. You have the right to prohibit the service of certain drinks if you know, for instance, that alcohol abuse is likely among your extended family or friends. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but it is a question that demands your attention and consideration.
I’ve heard of families with members who will say that they’re not going to a wedding unless there will be an open bar. Well, maybe there’s a point at which those family members shouldn’t come, if that’s really what they’re there for…
To keep the atmosphere joyful and fun throughout the night and avoid ugly drama, it is definitely worthwhile to exercise prudent planning about the booze. Don’t worry – setting limits isn’t going to kill the joy of your day; quite the contrary!
9. Dig deep for the kind of celebration you desire.
We haven’t all been dealt the same hand as far as what kind of party we’re able to throw.
Some folks live in naturally gorgeous places with readily available venues; some have traditional Greek bands within their own families; some have a long tradition of amazing cooks in the extended family who want nothing more than to contribute heirloom dishes for a feast… And then some might feel like there is not as much to work with when it comes to putting together a fun and memorable party.
If you find yourself discouraged on that score, here’s another thought for you: no one gets to inherit any cool traditions unless someone who came before started – or revived – them! If you do your best to go for the kind of reception you really want – whatever, precisely, that is – chances are good that you are blazing the trail for someone else to get to enjoy that kind of reception, too.
It might not be “perfect,” but you’ll be contributing to the collective memory and building something beautiful, and others will be grateful for your courage.
And remember: no one who will be in attendance wants it to be perfect. They love you, they want you to be happy. Never mind how much (or little) the dinner cost or how many awesome features your reception has or doesn’t have – if you’re happy, they’ll be happy too.
What other details do you think are important for fostering a party that all ages can enjoy?
Next in this series: Google Docs Bride: The Virtual Guest List
Previously in this series: