The Father-Daughter Dance Tradition: Sweet or Nah?

Liz Susong weighs in on the time-honored spin around the dance floor

Updated 09/14/17

Photo by Forged in the North

In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.

Ah, the father-daughter and mother-son dances, a.k.a. time for the guests to Instagram their cocktail hour photos #BenandHeatherForever. At best, these dances can provide a sweet moment of family connection; at worst they feel a little Oedipus complicated, if you catch my drift.

If you’ve read any other article in this column on the history of wedding traditions, you’re probably just as over dad’s role in transferring his little virgin to the next guy as I am. So you won’t be surprised to learn that originally the first dance was reserved for “the moment when the father led his daughter, the bride, onto the floor,” as wedding historian Susan Waggoner puts it in oddly romantic terms. Originally, the father/daughter dance came before the first dance as an extension of the “giving away” as well as the dowry—the father would demand a final dance before giving their daughters to their new man (often a stranger). Then the bride and groom would have their first dance. Today, however, the newly married couple typically shares the first dance, followed by father-daughter and mother-son dances.

I’ve seen couples begin with the father-daughter and mother-son pairings, but then break off halfway through the song to pick a new partner, making the dancing more inclusive. Jessica of Texas says that after the traditional dances, “We had a song where I danced with my father-in-law, he danced with my mom, and then we switched and danced with our own parents.” Kinzie of Missouri chose to approach these family dances in a unique fashion, as well. “We did one song that was both mother-son and father-daughter, and then the next song was mother-daughter.” This second song turned into a “snowball” dance: “My mom and I danced together for a while, and then our DJ shouted ‘snowball’ every so often. The couples dancing split apart and each picked a new person to dance with from the crowd. By the end of the song, we had the entire group of wedding guests dancing!”

Personally, I’d love to see more mother-daughter dances like Kinzie’s. Julie of Ohio says, “I’m not a big fan of the bouquet and garter toss hoopla, so when it came time for me to throw my flowers, I instead gave them to my mom and invited her to dance. It just felt like a better way to honor both of us.” Amanda Summerlin, a photographer in Georgia says, “One of my clients, who was named Stacy, did an epic dance with her mom to the song 'Stacy's Mom' a couple years ago, and it is one of my all time favorite wedding moments.” Amanda says mother-daughter dances are not unusual: “Over the years, I've had quite a few female clients dance with their moms, often because their fathers had passed. It's always a beautiful moment.”

Beth of Colorado lost her father two months prior to her wedding, so she elected to skip family dances altogether. She shares the story of how she and her dad created their own father-daughter dance moment prior to the wedding in the dressing room where she tried on her wedding gown for the first time: “He had limited mobility and my dress was still two feet too long, but my mom played Pachelbel’s Canon on her phone, and that was our 'dance.' ”

Wedding traditions are not one-size-fits all and should not be treated as such. Sometimes, it’s necessary to educate your wedding professionals if you are adjusting the usual wedding traditions to better fit your actual life and family relationships. Christina shares, “My friend grew up with her mom, not her dad, so she did the father-daughter dance, but then also a mother-daughter dance. Unfortunately, because of the stereotype of the father-daughter tradition, the photographer only captured pictures from the father-daughter dance (which my friend didn't really care about), so she doesn't have any photos that capture the dance with her mom, which was one of the most special moments of the day for her.”

Casey of Virginia shares, “When my wife and I married, I danced with my father, but hers refused to dance with her.” Now Casey is a wedding planner for queer couples, and she says, “I see this happen really frequently, and it causes others just as much pain as it caused my family.” I asked her if it is time to retire the father-daughter dance tradition, to which she responded, “No, because I see how meaningful the sense of continuity and family is for so many couples.” But she does think that “wedding traditions need to catch up to our society, and fast.” She acknowledges that families come in all shapes and sizes, and our closest family relationships may not be with an opposite-sex parent. “Like so many wedding traditions, I think we need greater flexibility in our collective imagination,” she says. “The ‘right’ wedding is totally subjective, and so are all the pieces that contribute to the day.”

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