The Moves Master: Dance in Boston’s Michele Cloutier
Michele Cloutier was working as a freelance interior designer in 1993 when an ad in the newspaper caught her eye: “If the right person, we’ll train. Ballroom dance instructor needed.” Cloutier, who had been dancing since she was six years old, got the gig and the rest, as they say, is history. After working for studios across the area, Cloutier began offering lessons out of her own apartment, eventually renting a dedicated space in Brookline to teach brides- and grooms-to-be how to twirl, dip, lift, twist, and everything in between. “I’m there to work in partnership with each couple,” says Cloutier, who choreographs custom first dances to fit each couple’s personality. “To me, that’s the most enjoyable part of teaching—the collaboration in creating.”
What kind of music works best for a dynamic first dance?
Choosing a song that both the bride and groom like is very important. Some like the classics—Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong. Some want a song that just came out, while others pick songs that have special meaning to their relationship. The type of song that is most exciting has a lot of contrast, accents, and crescendos. You can play around with the music: speed it up, slow it down, or cut it. Sometimes we slow a song down and then at the crescendo, we speed it up and we change dances—that’s what makes it really fun.
Once the couple selects the tunes, how do you decide on choreography?
I work with them to find out what their vision is. Most first dances lean toward one of two categories: the romantic, dreamy, sentimental first dance, or the entertaining, kick-the-party-off, surprise-guests-with-some-crazy-dance-moves-from-YouTube first dance. The timeframe they have available to learn the dance, how many lessons they plan on taking, their abilities, and their personality help form what their dance is going to look like. I also take into consideration the size of the dance floor and what they are comfortable doing. It’s very collaborative.
Is there an ideal song length?
It should be three minutes, max. If the song is longer, there are a couple of ways to solve that problem. First, you can have the wedding party join the newlyweds halfway into their dance. Another solution is to shorten the song. Nowadays there are a lot of music-editing programs, so you can cut out the middle of a verse, or a chorus if you want, but preserving the end of the song is important.
How far in advance should a couple start taking lessons?
It depends on what they are looking for and how much time they are willing to put into it. Obviously, the more time they have and the more lessons they take, the better the dance will be. Two months is a good timeframe to learn a dance, but even just one lesson before the wedding can help. If a couple wants, I can keep it very simple: They need an entrance and an ending, a couple of twirls and a dip, and a progressive step that allows them to move around on the floor.
Let’s talk about lifts.
Couples think the Dirty Dancing lift—which practically no one does because it’s dangerous—is the only kind of lift there is. There are so many different lifts, and they range in difficulty. There are easy ones that involve the woman standing still and the man picking her up and twirling her around. The more difficult lifts would be where the woman has to jump up higher, which takes more strength. There are different leg positions, which range from a scissor position to just straight and together.
Does wearing a wedding dress make it difficult to dance?
We consider what the bride can and can’t do, and sometimes we have to modify the dance around the dress. If the dress is big and heavy, or if it’s a strapless dress that isn’t tight enough, it might be difficult to do certain movements. If a wedding dress is tight all the way down to the knees, the bride may barely be able to take a step. Sometimes brides will want to do a certain dance so bad that they do a costume change in the middle of the wedding—they’ll put on something less restrictive or something they aren’t afraid they’ll fall out of. We don’t want any wardrobe malfunctions in front of Grandma.
What about couples with four left feet?
It’s never a lost cause. Ninety percent of students out there don’t have any experience at all. We just start from ground zero. Sometimes I’ll take stickies and put them on the floor if someone is having a hard time visualizing. People learn in different ways—there are visual, cognitive, and kinesthetic learners—and I just try to find out what works with each individual student.
Any advice for quelling stage fright on the big day?
You’ve put in all of this time and effort; there’s nothing more that you can do as far as preparation. Your guests would rather see you fall down and have a good time than be serious and have an amazing routine. It’s not a performance. It’s having a good time with your best friend during your first dance together as husband and wife. The dance is the chemistry between the two of you.
1485 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-285-1225, danceinboston.com.
Michele Cloutier’s advice for a swoon-worthy sashay around the dance floor.
Do: Make an entrance. You don’t want to look like you’re strolling down the street.
Don’t: Get stuck swaying in one spot. Try learning a progressive step (a dance pattern that travels) such as a promenade. It will help you move around the floor.
Do: Add twirls, and lots of them. To avoid getting dizzy, look at your partner as long as you can, and then turn your head around at the last moment.
Don’t: Let your arms hang limp at your side. If there’s a free hand, it needs to look pretty—like it’s alive with motion.
Do: Finish with a dip. It’s always a crowd-pleaser.
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