When I was a kid, we had The Bugs Bunny Hour on television, and it always started with this theme.
Whenever I think about wedding rehearsals, I have that mental picture of Bugs, Daffy, and the whole Warner Brothers crew processing across the stage. And every show was flawless in my eight-year-old mind because the stars “rehearsed and ‘hearsed their parts” until “they knew every part by heart!”
What Are Physical Rehearsals For, Anyway?
The wedding rehearsal not just about the rehearsal dinner, though I’ll touch on that a bit later. Instead, think about all the Hollywood and Broadway productions you’ve seen. Actors flawlessly delivering lines and performing actions from a script they received a short time before. That happens because they practice dozens of times before we see it on the screen or stage.
The more complex your entry, ceremony, and exit, the more important rehearsing becomes to creatine as close to a flawless presentation as possible.
Wedding Rehearsals Lead to Flawless Weddings
In my opinion, wedding rehearsals play and important role whenever it is more than just the couple and celebrant standing before the guests. The more people on the dais – the stage – the more important it becomes.
Originally, western weddings began with a processional, the parade of attendants up the church’s center aisle. They end with the recessional, where everyone departs the sacred space. The attendants, parents, and other folk up in front of the audience make up the wedding party. I’ll nerd out on the wedding party in another post, but you get a bit of that here.
The number of attendants depended on the relative prominence of the couple. The male attendants were retainers or vassals of the groom, while the female attendants were the bride’s equivalent. Of course, for the small middle-class of those centuries, these roles were filled by brothers, sisters, and cousins of the couple.
To maintain decorum in the church setting, the society developed rules for these parts of the ceremony. And because not everyone served within the church, it became important to practice these actions. Hence, the rehearsal.
Processionals have evolved over time. In addition to society’s changes since the 14th Century, entering the space has taken on creative notes. We can see some of them from this scene out of Crazy Rich Asians.
How did they get such striking effects? Practice!
Who Rehearses What?
For your physical rehearsal gather everyone in the wedding party. This includes attendants, child attendants with their adults (ring bearer and flower children), parents, and any animals with their handlers. You’ll also want your planner or coordinator and the wedding celebrant. If anyone can’t make it, make sure they aren’t a principal person and catch them up on their task.
Someone will need to take charge of the rehearsal. They need to know what the procession, ceremony, and recession look like, and should not be part of the wedding party. They’re your producer/director. Your planner, coordinator, or professional celebrant should perform this role.
Here’s the practice I usually follow when leading a rehearsal.
- Focus. Gather everyone and get them to focus. Usually this is a couple of sentences follow by lining everyone up.
- Start in the Middle. I start by getting all the attendants and the couple in their places at the dais. Now everyone knows where their spot is. Parents and youth attendants can relax for this part, as we’ll practice actions in the ceremony.
- The Ceremony. We practice all the physical actions that happen during the ceremony, including the vows, the ring exchange, and the kiss. We also practice this during the virtual rehearsal. If a ringbearer is coming up at the beginning of the exchange, or other special actions, we practice that.
- The Recessional. We’ll practice the order of departure, which is usually the couple, the attendants, and the VIP rows. This warms up everyone for practicing the processional.
- The Processional. This is the most complicated bit of movement, since this is the point we bring everyone into the ceremony space. The folks will come in according to the processional choreography and move to their positions on the dais or in the audience.
- Do It All Again. This is the “‘hearsing and rehearsing” part I mentioned at the beginning. We usually run through the actions at least twice to get everyone comfortable in their roles.
- Wrap Up. I wrap up with questions and follow up with the group. I like to know everyone is comfortable with what we’re doing.
Children and Animals
We love to involve everyone in the wedding. I’ve had about two dozen doggy ring bearers among my weddings, and it’s a lot like working with toddlers. They will always do the unexpected.
Let me say that again. Small children and animals will always do the unexpected.
That doesn’t mean we need to leave them out. That means we plan for it.
Up until 4 or 5 years of age, the children don’t necessarily understand what’s wanted of them. Beyond that age, the presence of an audience of people they barely know has it’s effect. Usually, they choose to opt out. (Sometimes loudly!)
Dogs may perform perfectly in rehearsal, but the presence of so many strangers on your big day will trigger behavior changes. These range from want to greet everyone through fear/aggression to shutting down. And you may not know what response you’re going to get from puppers.
Cats? Fuggedaboudit. Really, they are not going to participate and you run the risking of losing your valued Fluffkins.
So what’s the plan, if you want to include young children or a dog?
- Always have a handler. For children, this should be an adult or older child they trust. One of the cutest flower children walks was a 14-month-old in wagon, walking with a 4-year-old and a 9-year-old.
For your dog, it should be someone they’ll follow and obey. I advise avoiding the Rottweiler tied to the 8-year-old. The handler and doggo should practice extensively before the rehearsal and wedding – like weeks out. This way they have a comfortable trust relationship, and the handler can read the animal to know what’s going to happen.
- Always have a backup plan. Despite the practice and rehearsal, children and animals may choose not to participate. That’s something to accept and even expect.
Plan ahead for this by having an alternative to their role. Have the ring already up a the altar. Be ready to skip the small one’s participation if they find it overwhelming. Neither of these should prevent the ceremony or the rest of the day going forward.
And set a cut-off time around 15 minutes before the procession. If they aren’t ready to go, then bypass that part and move forward with your plans.
Let me wrap up this section by pointing out how, among more than 20 doggy ring bearers, only one did exactly what was expected. Of all the other dogs, those let off-lead did what I expected and ran off, or ran into the audience. I remember stopping a ceremony for at least 10 minutes while the groom and the handler tried to corral a run-away pup. It took another 5 minutes or so to get everyone to settle back into the ceremony. Certainly a memorable wedding!
A Virtual Rehearsal?
I always plan for a virtual rehears with the couple a few days before the ceremony. This happens regardless of wedding size, whether it’s an elopement or has over a dozen attendants. I find it helps settle the couple’s nerves about their ceremony, and smooths any snags before the big day.
Inevitably, this happens 3 or 4 days before the ceremony, so it’s always before the physical rehearsal. If we come up with changes during the virtual rehearsal, I bring the updated draft to the physical rehearsal for practice.
During the virtual rehearsal, we practice the physical parts of the ceremony. We’ll walk through the first lines of the vows and ring exchange, and practice any physical movement. We talk through the entire ceremony flow, and look for changes and errors as we go. This gives the three of us ample opportunity to check everything together.
What we don’t practice are:
- The full vows and the ring exchange. I like to keep everything with emotional impact for the actual event. We’ll only do the first line or so.
- Your story. Again, this is about emotional impact. This feature of weddings tells how your lives have worked out. You get to hear your story for the first time during the wedding. Those photos are priceless!
- Your personal promises. If you’re making personal promises, keep these secret until the ceremony. We’ll talk through how I hand those off to each of you.
- Unity Rituals involving physical movement. For example, it’s hard to practice the handfasting knot if we aren’t all in the same space.
The Rehearsal Dinner
It seems the rehearsal dinner has become more of a focus than the rehearsal. I kind of get that. I love to party and hang out with my friends. But the rehearsal dinner actually has a purpose related to your wedding party.
If you’ve followed advice, and put your wedding party to work with designing and planning your wedding day, this is your thank you to them. The formal bit of this tradition is to recognize what the members of the party have done, and honor them with a gift. It’s a distinct payoff for all the work and love they’ve shown as part of your ceremony.
I’ll do future posts on the rehearsal dinner and wedding party, and link back here. The main point is
The Rehearsal Dinner is Not the Rehearsal.
It’s a distinct event. You may invite your planner or officiant, but the dinner really is a celebration of your inner circle.