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In the context of balls, the term "first dance" has two meanings.
At various formal balls the first dance was led by the guest of honor, which was usually the person of the highest social position in a given context, such as a member of the royal family, if any were present. Their dance was the opening of the ball. As these were generally long country dances, the guests of honor would be the first people to go down the set, not the only two people dancing for the entirety of the first piece of music.
The "first dance" of a married couple is a popular element at wedding receptions or post-wedding celebrations, in modern European and American traditions. Exactly like an old-fashioned ball, the idea is that the married couple, as the guests of honor at a dance, open the dancing. The style of dance is a personal choice. Some couples opt for a pre-rehearsed choreographed dance, whereas some sources feel that performing a choreographed duet for spectators is inappropriate. Because they are intended to open the dance for all guests, first dances are inappropriate and therefore omitted when there is no other dancing planned for the guests.Sometimes, to further the traditional gender roles of father-daughter relationships in weddings (similar to 'giving away') the bride may share a dance with her father.
In the past, the first dance was usually a waltz, as ballroom dancing was a widespread skill. However in the current times, ballroom dance is not a skill that is common within society. Therefore, modern couples either 'slow dance' or learn a dance, whether it be a ballroom dance style or a choreographed dance routine. The past decade has seen a rise in popularity of engaged couples actively seeking dance tuition. So teaching and rehearsing the "first dance" is now a service offered by dance studios, independent dance instructors and specialist wedding dance tuition companies.
- At "Studniówka", a kind of prom in Poland, the first dance is usually a polonaise, which students usually have to practice before the ball.
Since these times the phrase "to open the ball" has become a figure of speech for initiating an activity which will be subsequently continued by others. The term has been used in descriptions of battle scenes.
- Thomas E. Hill, "Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette" (1994) ISBN 0-912517-12-3 (paperback)
- Martin, Judith; Jacobina Martin (2010). Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 272. ISBN 0-393-06914-1.
- From Rudyard Kipling's "The Drums Of The Fore And Aft": Over that pock-marked ground the Regiment had to pass, and it opened the ball with a general and profound courtesy to the piping pickets; ducking in perfect time, as though it had been brazed on a rod.