If weddings were only about the joining of a man and a woman into a single body, that would have been better accomplished in private.
We all seem to know how weddings are supposed to be, to look. One wedding website offers separate sections for the “elegant” bride,” the “fairy tale” bride, the “glamorous” bride, the “contemporary” bride, and the “destination” bride.
While the wedding images and two-dimensional ideals are firmly ingrained for us mentally, we often carry less sense of what weddings are supposed to, and can, do. Yet, held in public, with their very specific organization of the bodies involved, weddings hold the potential to transform not just couples, but whole communities. At their heart, weddings aggregate one family and set of friends with another, even through how the social spaces of sanctuary and reception hall are organized.
The transformation from two to one begins even as guests enter for the wedding, identifying themselves as being on the bride’s or the groom’s “side.” Yet, virtually as soon as they are seated, they undergo a subtle shift from their identification as representing the seeming self-interest of the bride or groom, to being a representative, for the other side’s view, of just who those people are to whom one’s nephew, best friend from college, or co-worker is about to be joined for life. I’m both my oldest friend Rosalind’s fiercest defender, as she makes this most significant life commitment, and (alas) her visual and behavioral ambassador and stand-in, as her husband-to-be’s friends and family check me out. With the bride as overcommitted as she’s going to be this day, Ros’s other friends and I have a lot of work to do to convey to Avi’s side that he’s going to be with good people from now on.
Thus, the bride’s and groom’s social worlds are unveiled to each other at the ceremony itself, much the way a couple may reveal themselves to each other at the altar in cultures that have arranged marriages. And the unveiling that happens at the ceremony itself carries potential for all kinds of outcomes, from hope, delight, or relief to horror.
Once we get to the reception and the choreographed interactions that often lead it off, the two peoples go beyond merely gazing across an aisle at each other: they enter into a choreographed mixing ritual reinforcing the relationships across generations and then across family lines. The now-traditional bride and groom first dance is followed by the groom + mother and the bride + father dances, then often opens out to inviting the larger community into increasingly bacchanalian combinations, as intensely focused or calculatedly seductive couple dances give way to the power of the grape and morph into group line and circle dances.
Perhaps the best example of this kind of integration through the dancing I’ve ever seen took place in Antigua, Guatemala, at the wedding reception of my friends Stephanie and Aldo. The guests were of two quite distinct audible types–those predominantly English speakers who had flown from the U.S. for this destination wedding, and Aldo’s Spanish-speaking relatives living in Guatemala. I’d never experienced the intensity of male dancing energy that I did at this wedding, where no woman, of whatever age, language of origin, or relationship to the couple, was allowed to sit out a dance. (True, one group of young men kept to themselves on one corner of the dance floor. With their long arms wound around each other’s shoulders in the circle they’d formed, over and over again they’d bend their knees slightly and pop as a group high into the air, like a team of porpoises. Their exuberance at the occasion of their cousin Aldo’s marriage was uncontainable by any cardiovascular limitation.)
But because of the palpable commitment of the rest of the male community to proving its mettle by raising every present woman’s heart rate, each danced with all, and two worlds united in a grand sociosexual mating. Dirty dancing would be the entitlement of every couple, no matter the age or language difference; even the female officiant participated.
Yet most of us have attended a wedding, an integration ritual, that succeeds in joining a couple legally and ceremonially but utterly fails at joining the two bodies of the couple’s social worlds. For me, when that happens, the sense of the squandered opportunity can be heartbreaking.
It is, after all, supposed to be about me and everyone else as well as about the couple. The wedding’s about my getting re-married to my partner, re-connected to the institution of marriage, integrated in a commitment to the new family and circle of friends and bearers of her husband’s history my friend has chosen. That’s perhaps why people cry at weddings–for the enormity of the transformation into a wider community they have agreed to undergo.
Sometimes there are special challenges in bringing together the two worlds. I once attended the commitment ceremony joining a Catholic man and a Jewish man in the Upper West Side apartment of my dear friends Steve and Michael. Rabbi and priest co-officiated, and together they both cracked up the attendees and surfaced the unspoken religious and cultural tensions via a mirthful duet about their interreligious officiant union that mirrored that of the loving couple. They leaned in toward each other and chimed, “We go together, like cookies and milk, peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots.”
In a like situation, it wasn’t a religious but an apparent geographic barrier to partnership, as the bride lived in Chicago, the groom in Manchester, England. Many of us carry the belief that the two involved bodies need to be present in the same place most of the time. Yet that wasn’t the assumption of the couple, both mature people. Thus, one of the chief ritual functions of the officiant was to move each side through its tacit distrustfulness by helping it know the unfamiliar partner well enough and assent to the likelihood of success for these two, given the unusual “‘cross-the-pond” (Atlantic Ocean, in British terms) basis on which they had predicated the first few years of their marriage.
Graduations, housewarming parties, funerals, even baby showers carry ritual function. But one can go smaller, zoom in tighter than that. In our simplest daily one-on-one interactions, we engage in rituals that can either appear or accomplish.