It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1993. At a country club in an affluent Connecticut suburb, six preteen ballerinas in white, ankle-length tutus sit scattered like a constellation across the drab burgundies of the industrial, floral-print carpet. In this windowless antechamber the dancers fold their bodies in half, stretching their hamstrings, but their focus is on the closed double doors, through which muffled sounds of high-heeled footsteps and animated voices are audible. Cutlery clinks against a champagne flute. The crowd settles, and someone makes... a toast? An announcement? It's hard to tell. Just then, an officious British ballet mistress in a slick bun and kitten heels hurries the girls onto their feet and into a straight line, handing each of them a single white rose. A sound system croons the first few notes of Celine Dion's "Power of Love" (which I urge you to play as you read this), the double doors fly open, and one by one, the six young dancers step into the light.
It was the first wedding I had ever attended. Because I was a performer and not a guest, my experience was less a movie than a series of snapshots. A woman's pantyhose cutting into her belly, the folds of her flesh visible beneath the too-tight dress she'd no doubt bought just for the occasion. Tombé, pas de bourrée. Private moments trammeled by the theatrics of cocktail party laughter. Pas de chat, developé. Bejeweled hands grasping glasses of chardonnay. Piqué, piqué, arabesque. Cater waiters in penguin suits navigating floral arrangements so elaborate they engulfed rather than displayed their component blooms. Balancé, balancé soutenu. The groom beaming with... pride? Pressure? He's wiping sweat from his brow. I fixate on how his collar is too tight for his thick neck. I wonder whether we should stop the music and let him get some air. Just in time, I see that Jenny and Rebecca have already given their roses. That's my cue. I bourrée, bourrée toward what I now know to be a sweetheart table, and then I see her.
Layers of nearly fluorescent tulle cascade from a high and tight French twist and graze the puffed sleeves of a dress that is not unlike the one Kimberly Williams-Paisley wore in 1991's well-loved Father of the Bride remake. Except, of course, that Ms. Williams-Paisley possessed the wide-eyed youth and soft, natural curls of a virgin princess. The bride in front of me, meanwhile, with her frosted blonde hair and aggressively sun-kissed skin, has taken a Victorian mold and infused it with high fashion sex, which is not problematic in and of itself -- be sexy! be you! -- but is giving mixed messages in this particular scenario. And that's only the beginning.
Her thin, angular face suggests a prettiness beneath the linear rouge and frosted lipstick she wears. In her left hand, a Virginia Slim. She pulls it to her lips. Did I mention we're indoors? Smiling and shaking and smoking and crying and smoking and shaking and smiling. With her right hand she accepts the rose I've extended. I'm physically close enough now to feel her humanness in the midst of all this pomp and circumstance. I detect an intimacy in the way she regards her groom; it's nearly indiscernible beneath all these bright lights, but it's there. High on a heady mix of cigarette smoke and perfume, I bourrée reluctantly away, mesmerized by this complicated creature and baffled as to what weddings are and how they should be.
As first impressions are lasting impressions, I long carried the notion that weddings are false, uncomfortable and a little ridiculous. I have since had the honor of attending a number of enchanting weddings in which the bride and groom, bride and bride or groom and groom embody the blissed-out ease dreams are made of and serve as a reminder of why things like ceremony, ritual and community have been cornerstones of culture for millennia. But that's not the point. The point is: when Jack and Jill (or Jack and Jack, or Jill and Jill) become "The Jack and Jill Show" a paradox is born. An exhibition of intimacy. The publicizing of privacy. The use of words, objects and sensory delights to emblematize a nonverbal, intangible connection that ought to transcend the senses and be so ineffably special that only the two people involved can fully grasp its nature.
Or so I thought at age 12.
Anybody who watches Game of Thrones can tell you that weddings have, historically, been motivated by everything from diplomatic relations to land ownership, wealth, power, politics and so on. Only when Victoria married Albert in 1840 did the notion that love could motivate marriage become popular. To be clear, marriage is a separate issue altogether; I mention it only because the Victorian romanticism spawned by this couple's union impacted the style of wedding celebrations in the years that followed. A similar phenomenon occurred when Diana married Charles in 1981. The high hems, flowing silhouettes and varying colors of previous decades gave way to white, lace, volume and grandeur.
Just as our style is influenced by the eras and cultures we occupy, so too is our interpretation of emotional architecture swayed by the images and narratives we imbibe. I fancy myself an independent thinker, but in 1993 I really wanted this trembling, tearful bride to appear serene and happy. Father of the Bride had been my sole wedding curriculum at that point, and I thought Annie Banks had totally nailed it. Obviously everybody should play Pachelbel's Canon as they wed, am I right? If you don't, something must be lacking from your relationship. Later I'd trade Pachelbel for Bush's "Glycerine" and replace thoughts of weddings with fantasies of flannel-clad, urban cohabitation. Lelaina and Troy of Reality Bites showed me that real love isn't fine china and string quartets. Real love is shared cigarettes, existential malaise and running your hands through each other's unwashed hair.
I recently became engaged and have already put my foot in my mouth about a thousand times when attempting to discuss the prospect of a celebration. If you want to throw a big party, you'll offend the proponents of modest restraint. If a more subtle person, you seem like a killjoy to those who want to be happy for you. If you prefer the outdoors, you trip over yourself to tell your friends why their indoor wedding was the best wedding ever. On that note, you'll start speaking in gushy superlatives, none of which are based in reality and all of which are uttered in hopes of making others feel better and you feel nicer. The Hail Mary superlative does not, however, make you feel nicer. It makes you feel momentarily democratic, and then dirty for fibbing, and finally irresolute, which is worst of all when you're trying to act like a grown up and take a decisive stance on anything whatsoever.
People will tell you, "It's your day, so do what you want," or "You only do this once -- well, hopefully (wink) -- so go all out!" and, my personal favorite, "Forget the party; save the money; you'll thank me later." Those who wear red think white dresses have been played out. Those with kids wonder why others feel the need to marry first and procreate later. It is, after all, 2013. There are the three-month courtships and the 15-year courtships. Ultimately, no matter what you do, you will offend everyone. In your mind, they become a band of hecklers. As you walk down the street they shout, "You blood-diamond-flaunting, patriarchy-pandering, heteronormative ne'er-do-well! You're singlehandedly subverting the women's movement and throwing a party with resources that could be used to feed starving children!" To which you reply, in a meek whisper, "I've obviously considered all of that and am trying to do this thing ethically and gracefully, damn it! Also, what is your feeling about signature cocktails?"
These voices are not real. They're all in your head. Pretty much everybody is happy for you. Moreover, nobody really cares. They're busy with their own lives.
Love is a curious thing. Everybody expresses it differently. Hiring a gaggle of young dancers from the local ballet academy to surprise your new wife, who loves ballet almost as much as she does Virginia Slims and Celine Dion? You've got to hand it to that guy for thinking outside the box. I don't know if it was cheesy or tacky or adorable or romantic, but what I think matters not one bit, because it was theirs. And that is beautiful.
Follow Brooke Lyons on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brookelyons