Ask Team Practical: Mother-Son Dance

My fiancé and I are not shy about cutting “traditions” that aren’t going to work for our wedding or seem silly to us. Garter-toss? Out. Throwing my bouquet? Uh-uh. Cake-cutting? Make it pie! One tradition we have kept—and one I especially look forward to—is our first dance. We’ve already picked a song (Louis Armstrong’s “La Vie en Rose”) and have been talking about getting ballroom dance lessons for years.

However, last week my future mother-in-law threw a bit of a wrench in the plans. We were casually discussing the wedding over dessert when she announced that she had asked my fiancé to take some ballroom dance classes—with her. She then invited me to join—with my dad. She’s been divorced from my fiancé’s father for twelve years (they don’t speak) and does not currently have anyone (romantically) in her life. He is her only child. She has been nothing but absolutely excellent to me—making every friendly overture possible from day one, being respectful of our relationship and us, and always being incredibly thoughtful and considerate. She’s really a dream future mother-in-law! As a dedicated follower of APW Philosophy, I tried not to immediately jump to, “But it’s MY wedding!” I made some polite noises and the conversation continued from there. The problem is, I find myself privately feeling hurt, jealous, and indignant. It’s ugly, but true. I feel like dance lessons are something my fiancé and I should be doing, not him and his mother. Besides, my dad has already taken ballroom dance and knows what he’s doing. I haven’t spoken to my fiancé, but this issue is burning a hole in me while I keep silent.

What do I do? Keep silent and try to let it go? Try to discuss it? I would really appreciate your help!

Mentally Making Assessment of Maternal Matters Anxiously—Mother In-law Astounds!


I get enough emails about terror mothers-in-law, that it’s sort of a relief to hear you gushing about yours. And even in this little snag of a situation, it sounds less like your mother-in-law is overstepping boundaries, and more like your partner isn’t setting them. I’m guessing that’s not for any reason other than that he just didn’t know. He didn’t know this was important to you! He didn’t know that you wanted ballroom dancing lessons to be “your thing.” So, mom asked to take lessons, and he jumped on board. While it makes for a sticky issue, you can’t really fault either of them for it. And before you pull him aside to talk it out, let’s figure out whether or not this is a situation where you even need those boundaries.

I completely understand what it’s like to want something unique and special and “just us” with your partner. But, the whole wedding day is one giant special moment with him. While you may feel like “ballroom dance lessons is OUR THING!” really, isn’t the whole day, “our thing”? Meanwhile, that mother-son dance is the only small “just us” moment your mother-in-law gets with him. And in a symbolic, but also real sort of way, it’s her last one. This is it. From here on out, he’s all yours. You’ll be able to have hypothetical “ballroom dance lesson” moments just the two of you for the rest of your lives. She, mostly, will not. And I’m guessing she knows it and wants to make the most of it while she can.

I passed your question over to former ATP writer Alyssa (as I sometimes do. She’s not emeritus staff for nothin’) and she pointed out that in addition to that emotional, symbolic stuff, mother-in-law is probably super nervous about dancing in front of people. Sure, dance lessons would mean she gets an extra opportunity to spend time with her son, savoring the last moments before he has a new family of his own. But, they also mean she won’t look like an ass in front of her friends. Anyone would be nervous about being center stage on a super emotional, important day. But, add to that the fact that your dad knows how to dance? You’re setting up a tough act to follow.

So, yeah. Usually I’m writing about the wedding being a time of setting boundaries and for laying the groundwork to make sure that your relationship with your spouse is respected and protected. But, there’s also another piece to weddings that’s all about joining two families together into one big (hopefully) happy family. Instead of that first kind of boundary issue, I see this as potentially that second kind of family opportunity. You two can still take your private lessons together and have your special time. But maybe this is one chance to expand “just us” to “all of us” by taking lessons all together, too, or giving her some alone time with her son.

The flip side to figuring out how to protect “our thing” by creating personal, private time, traditions, and memories for just the two of you, is figuring out how to allow family in. The need to hash out that line between “just us” and “you can be part of this” is already starting, and both sides of that coin are important. It’s tricky. It’s personal. But, it’s worth the thought and effort to make sure you’re paying attention to both your baby-family and your extended one.

If I haven’t made it clear yet, I’d include mom in this one. Let her have some time with her son as she adjusts to the idea that he’s moving on. But, it still is a good opportunity to pull your partner aside and say, “Hey. That was important to me. I like having things that are just specially ours.” That conversation might as well begin now, because it’s not ending any time soon. It’ll to come up from time to time, whether in the form of, “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted me to wait and see The Great Gatsby with you!” or, “Whoops, didn’t realize this was sexy-dinner when I invited my college roommate along.” Be ready to let him know when things are “just us” (because it’s important to have those!), but realize that this wedding is just the beginning of a lifetime of “just us.” It’s okay to share a little.


Team Practical, how do you determine what stuff is just for you and your partner, and what you can invite your family to enjoy with you?

Photo by Calin Peters.

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!

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  • On a practical note, as a swing-dancer and ballroom-dancer myself, you can probably have it both ways with the lessons. If you find a studio that offers lessons, usually you will be able to attend group lessons (which are likely held weekly, or on a set schedule, and open to the public) and/or private lessons (which you would obviously schedule with the instructor). So maybe you could do group lessons with the whole family- maybe your dad would like to brush up or learn a new step?- and do private lessons with you and your fiance.

    Even if you don’t have private lessons just with your fiance, in group lessons there is almost always the option and the encouragement to rotate partners throughout the lesson. It’s helpful to the learning process (a poor partner doesn’t drag you down, a better partner helps you figure stuff out, etc), and for your situation, it means you can have some time dancing with your guy, complete with giggles and meaningful eye contact, and he and his mom can have fun dancing together too.

    That being said – Liz’s advice is on-target, too. Plus, either way, you can practice your steps in the kitchen at home, so when the romantic-fun turns into sexy-fun, you’re conveniently near an appropriate bed/couch/floor/table .

    • Addendum: La Vie en Rose is a lovely slow foxtrot, so maybe you could take foxtrot lessons as a couple, and lessons for another dance as a group (or just your fiance and his mom could take them together)- may I suggest swing? It’s so much fun, and can be danced to a wide range of music :-)

    • Kirsten

      Another ballroom dancer here, and I just wanted to add that several of the studios in my area offer a semi-private lesson option, which is essentially a group lesson with ONLY people that you select (as opposed to walking into a regular group lesson that anyone could attend). If you find a studio with that option, you could easily schedule semi-private lessons for the two of you, your dad, and your future mother-in-law, and then take separate private lessons with just your fiance. In my experience, the semi-private option can be good because you don’t have to share the instructor with other (non-related) people in the group, but it’s generally a lower rate than regular private lessons. And I love the idea of foxtrot lessons with your fiance and another style with the parents- that could be a great way to keep some separation between the two lessons and have it still be “your thing.”

    • Kirsten

      (On an entirely unrelated note, I just clicked over to your blog out of curiosity, Sarah, and you’re in Nebraska too?!? Small world.)

      • Dude, tell me you live in the eastern part of the state! I’ve only been here for two years, so I’m always on the hunt for friends :-)

        • Kirsten

          Omaha area. Technically on the Iowa side, but I spend most of my social time and a good share of my work time in Omaha so it’s easier just to say Nebraska. :) I’m in the same boat with being here for about two years, so clearly this is a sign that we should figure out a way to connect.

          • I’m in Lincoln! I just started (as in, last week) dancing with the Jitterbugs! I don’t know if you lindy hop, but if you do, they’re worth checking out. Either way, I would gladly meet you in Omaha for coffee/beer/cocktail/whatever. Also, do you dance American or International style ballroom? (I promise not to let the answer affect your friendship potential)

            You can email me at: saraherdlen at gmail dot com.

    • I was just going to say the same thing. You could all do the group lessons together, and just respectfully request to rotate partners for a dance or two so that you get to practice with your fiance as well. Your mother-in-law could take a turn with another man in the class, or with your dad, assuming they know each other and are both comfortable with that. Everybody wins!

  • Because everything you have to say about your future mother-in-law is full of love and respect, it seems then totally likely that this was not meant as anything other than her wanting to do something special with her son. So letting her have this, sounds like something you’d like to do, but you want to get over the ugly jealousy type feelings inside. If I’ve summarized properly here would be my thoughts:

    – Ask hubby to do silly choreographed dance with you. Are you those kinds of folks? He can do the sweet waltz with his mom and do a modern dance with you.

    – Look at this as something you can do for your future mother-in-law – an act of true generosity. Sometimes I want the last Oreo. And so does my husband. But he’s eaten more and I deserve it I think to myself. But he really wants it too and he’ll totes give it to me if I just ask. So sometimes I challenge myself to be the more generous. To insist he take it because knowing how much he will appreciate it, makes me feel super good too – way better than eating the Oreo would have.

  • Best pseudonym ever.

  • Meg

    Your mother-in-law sounds lovely and just really excited about this special moment with her son. When you think about it, that dance is really the only big moment for the mother of the groom out of the whole day, so it makes sense that she’s trying to have her special touch, while not intervening too much in everything else you’re planning. Coming from a similar future MIA situation, I totally understand the initial frustration and defensiveness, but you just have to stop and realize how excited she is and how much this means to her. It says a lot about her approach that she also invited you to participate with your dad – this isn’t about her stealing her son from you, but rather a way to celebrate this farewell moment between parent and child. Repay her thoughtfulness by embracing this moment for her, and redirect your frustrations to that cousin calling you nonstop about a plus one :)

    • Anon for this

      I dunno. This question could almost be a barometer of our relationships with our FMILs. Anyway, I am finding it impossible to read it not in the context of my very, very pushy, possessive FMIL. And suggesting I take dance lessons with my dad while she did with my fiance? Totally something she’d do, because she’s playing a long game.

      In any case, trying to set aside the screaming tension that landed on my back as I read the letter, I think the point that this is a boundary issue that falls more on the fiance is huge. Something wedding-related that you’ve discussed doing? He should be consulting you before agreeing to it. And even if the right answer on this one is to let it go, the general point is something that you want to be clear between you.

      • I have all the empathy for you Anon (I should probably be anon for this too). I have exactly the same background/reaction. It takes a few breathing exercises to recognize that an action that is so reminiscent of the “long game” issues we’ve had are not necessarily that in this context.

        • Laura

          Agreed. That was my initial reaction too, because my own FMIL and I have had some role clashes. The three of us have lived together for seven months, and she is moving into a condo next week. Let me tell you, there is only enough space in that house for one “Lady of the House” and two ladies pushing against each other to fill it. RECIPE FOR CONFLICT! It’s only in the last couple of weeks as she prepares to move out that I’ve realized that she and I are going to be pretty great friends when we each have our own space. :)

          All this to say, it sounds to me like your fiancé just didn’t realize that this was important to you. I think sitting down with him and explaining your feelings would go a long way. You could just say, “I had thought that this would be something you and I would do, so when you jumped at the chance to do it with your mom and not with me I felt a little hurt.” Hopefully then you and your guy could come up with a compromise that makes everyone comfortable.

          And being a not-so-talented dancer myself about to marry an amazing ballroom dancer, I can completely understand why your FMIL might be terrified to dance at the same time as your dad if he is an accomplished dancer. And if she is single, like my own FMIL, she may simply not have anyone else to turn to for a partner.

      • Actually took me a great deal of effort as well to shake off what I would do if it were MY MIL. I just pretended my MIL was super nice and awesome like this one sounded and what would I do. But it was tough!

  • KateM

    I think Liz nailed it, as usual. Especially since it doesn’t sound like you had definitely decided to do these with your fiance, it was something you were thinking about.
    I think your reaction was totally normal. I think it is really hard when someone preempts us, especially in this context, because it is meaningful to you. I think the first suggestion about the classes was a great one, but if it means your fiance and his mother just taking classes together, that is okay too. Your first dance is going to be great. I loved that moment, it was the closest thing to time standing still in a hectic but wonderful day.
    And it sounds like you have a winner, a guy that is game for dance lessons with his mom? Total score.

  • p.

    I had a different read on this and thought I’d put it out there. To me, the response implies that the man in this scenario didn’t know the dance was important to his future wife, but (to me) the letter reads as if the ballroom dance was something that was important to both the letter-writer and her future husband (“we” picked a song, “we” have been looking forward to this). Given this, I see this as a boundary issue for the couple: this dance is a shared goal that the MIL now wants to be a part of. I totally agree with the end of the letter’s advice to talk it out, but I don’t necessarily agree that mom’s suggested dance should automatically be accepted. As someone suggested above, maybe it’s two different dances.

    I also don’t have very traditional beliefs about weddings and that may be coloring my take on this, but the idea that this is the mom’s “last” chance with her son doesn’t sit well with me. To me, it makes it seem like there’s a contest and that mom should “get” the dance because letter-writer “gets” the man. Should mom be respected and honored at an important time in her son’s life? Absolutely. But should mom get to decide exactly how she is honored? On that point, I’m not sure.

  • Anon

    I just ran into a future MIL boundary issue myself…my future in-laws want to stay at our house for the days before the wedding. We have a spacious place with a guest bedroom and when they visit they routinely stay with us and it’s great. But I think having them be house guests the week before the wedding would be a lot for us to handle, so we’ve asked them to stay in a hotel. But, I have a bridesmaid who was planning to come early to help out with the wedding and I’d like to offer her the free lodging of staying at our place instead of requiring her to get a hotel. Is that a double-standard? Should I let go of the idea of having my friend stay with us? It feels difficult to explain to the future in-laws and the future hubs without hurting their feelings.

    Maybe I should just write Ask Liz myself, but thought maybe you all could give thoughts in the comments…Thanks.

    • Rachel Wilkerson

      Maybe you can frame it as your friend is coming in early to help…and you don’t want to put your in-laws to work. You want them to relax the week before the wedding and feel like guests, and if they stay to you it may just be more stressful for them! So maybe frame it as you were thinking that a hotel would make sure they knew they were guests and not obliged to help out.

    • We got married in the city where we live and my best friend advised me to get a hotel room for us the night before and night of the wedding. It was a block away and gave us a place to get ready, dump stuff, and run off to. It also meant we could have several friends who were helping with the wedding stay at our place for free while having a place to ourselves the night before and night of the wedding, AND his brother got a room down the hall so we got to hang out with him.

      Maybe you can (if budget allows) stay in the hotel his parents are staying at and let your bridesmaid, and maybe a couple other people, stay at your place. If you trust the friend, at least, at your place without you.

      I do think it would be hard to say to everyone “MY friend can be here but YOUR parents can’t” even if that is not how you intend it. You may also be able to arrange for her to stay with another friend near by?

    • Oof, that’s tough. I see this a couple ways:

      A. Allow your friend to stay there. Don’t offer explanation unless asked, in which case you discreetly mention her strapped finances. Or, find a way to mention her strapped finances (whether true or not) in conversation about her staying with you. Gets across the message that you didn’t choose her over them, but rather find this necessary so she can attend at all.

      B. Don’t have anyone stay with you, see if another friend or family member will allow your bridesmaid some crash space. Or perhaps go halfsies on a hotel room if possible. She can still spend the majority of her time with you or at your house, but she sleeps/showers elsewhere.

      My vote is option B. As a social dancer, I learned the etiquette that if you turn down a dance with one partner (for whatever reason, but especially in the case of undesirability), then it’s rude to accept another partner for the exact same song. If you choose to sit out the song, sit it out, no problem. If you choose to dance the song, either ask your desired partner first, or graciously accept the first offer you get.

      • I agree with SarahE. I don’t think you can have your friend stay with you without it causing hurt feelings and resentment. It just doesn’t seem like it’s worth the risk.

      • Cat

        When I was my friends maid of honour coming into town early to help, she arranged to have me stay at another friends and her parents to stay in a hotel. They just had a no guests before the wedding rule and honestly it was a good idea. The night of the wedding they stayed in a hotel and I think her brother crashed at her place… But that only was an option because she and her hubby weren’t there.
        But basically I also agree with option B, I was over all the time but crashed else where. Totally worked for everyone.

    • alyssa

      You could always say that you offered your place to your bridesmaid first, so sorry! But that you can’t wait to celebrate the first married Fourth of July with them, etc. :)

      Your in-laws got married; they know that wedding week boundaries exist! This is your opportunity to define them just a little bit more. I had to do this with my (wonderful, gracious) in-laws when they decided to stay in my home town the whole week before the wedding. They wanted to throw parties and plan activities, and it came from the bottom of their hearts – but I just needed some alone time, or some “last nights” with my girlfriends and family. We had lots of together time, but I didn’t attend all the activities. They totally understood, and did some hosting for their family and groomsmen, while I happily stayed in my pajamas with my sisters watching Father of the Bride and sobbing. (How charming… but SO cathartic!) They totally understood, and I’m sure yours will, too!

    • Anon

      Thanks for the advice, all, extremely helpful. I think ultimately it would hurt their feelings, whatever spin I put on it, and it probably isn’t worth that hurt, much as it would help my stress level and be fun to her stay with us.

    • We had a very similar situation. My now-husband’s mother wanted to stay in our apartment with our niece (who she’s raising). If this had been a regular ol’ visit, that would have been totally fine… but I didn’t want to deal with the extra stress leading up to the wedding, so I told my husband to ask her to find a hotel. I think that’s totally acceptable, and no reasonable person would be offended by it. Most friends I mentioned it to were shocked she would even ask to stay with us… but she wasn’t upset when we politely declined.

  • I agree with all of this, but I want to add one thing. I would encourage you to think about why you have been holding onto this in secret, while it burns away at you. Is it because you feel guilty of your feelings? Are you afraid your partner would be unsupportive? Are you telling yourself it’s sill & your wrong to feel this way?

    I’ve found, when I have a “selfish” reaction to something involving my partner, and I wish I felt otherwise (i.e. letting him and his mom take ballroom dance lessons) that shoving it all the way to the back of the closet and trying to bury it never, ever makes me feel better. Usually those feelings that I initially felt guilty and/or embarrassed of come tumbling out at the worst possible moment, in the worst possible way. But when I talk through the situation I always feel better.

    So I’d encourage you to talk through this with your partner. Everything you said here is emotionally intelligent and empathetic towards your partner and your future mother-in-law, so you’re starting from a good place. You can’t change how you feel, so don’t beat yourself up about those feelings. Just air them out, and you’ll be surprised how much lighter you feel.

  • Diane

    My question for the OP is: would it be possible for your fiance to take dance lessons with his mom and with you? As someone with less than zero dance talent, I suspect that more lessons is probably a good idea. If so, then you and your fiance can go and have fun learning to dance with each other and he and his mom can do the same, either with or without you and your dad. If the answer is “yes, but…”, then may I gently ask if there’s somethere more here than dance lessons? Could this be in any way related to figuring out the transition from people people coming from different families to being a new baby family? Could it be scary to balance loving this new family you’re joining with allegiance to and love for your family of origin? Could it be the challenge of figuring out where you and your mother-in-law both fit for your soon-to-be husband? Could you be wondering how you’ll both learn this new role of “spouse” after months or years as boy/girlfriend and fiance(e)? ‘Cause all of that stuff? That is scary, and there’s no road map for it. But that is where the people who support you in your life can be so wonderful in listening and allowing you to wonder about these things.

  • LikelyLaura

    I totally understand your disappointment. But. As someone who took dance lessons before our wedding, I’m wondering if you might want your dad to come to a few lessons even if he’s a great dancer. My husband and I were pretty fast learners, but we still could only foxtrot and really only foxtrot to the one song we practiced. So you might feel more comfortable practicing to the Father-Daughter dance song, as well!

    Another upside is, I’m guessing your dad would love a little extra quality time with you, too. :)

    A third bonus is that your fiance’s and your parents could become even more comfortable together. Which, really, could help you navigate endless family events/holidays/issues in the future.

    • LikelyLaura

      Oh also! Dance lessons were really, really, really, really fun. I just wanted to add that!

      And our instructor gave us some really great advice which (for me, because I needed to be reminded) I’ve really taken as marriage/relationship advice. She started us off by saying “It’s not your job to correct your partner’s moves. They know when they mess up. It IS your important to praise them when they do something right. They’ll try even harder in the future if they know you notice and appreciate it.”


    This is kind of tangential, but I also had my future mother-in-law ask about doing a dance with her son, and so now I am sharing what I had always picture to be my ‘just us’ father-daughter dance. Future hubby doesn’t want to drag out the individual dances and having 3 separate ones. Which I think I am ok with in concept except I am having trouble coming up with a song that’s appropriate. Any suggestions on a joint father daugther/mother son song?

    • Jessica

      Katie: I absolutely love the song “If you had a family like mine” (on iTunes) by Jon Troast. The song describes growing up with a mom, dad, and lots of kids, so if that doesn’t reflect your/your fiancé’s situation maybe it wouldn’t work, but it’s a beautiful song nonetheless. :)

    • Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”? (Though at the risk of offending his deeply-loyal fans, I’d pick a cover of it. Love his song-writing, but his voice- nosomuch)

      • Anon

        I did Rod Stewarts – Forever Young for my father-daughter dance. My dad picked it and I loved it!

    • We did a father/daughter mother/son dance to Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.

    • I danced with my dad to “In My Life” by The Beatles, which I think is a lovely choice for parent dances.

    • Kat

      We had a father/daughter, mother/son dance, but my father and I started off and then after we’d had our ‘moment’ husband and his mother joined in (this was husband’s idea and I liked it).

      We danced to Let’s Dance by David Bowie.

  • Manya

    Yeah, I have to agree with Liz on this one. If you don’t currently have any conflict/competition with your MIL I would avoid introducing any. And it does sound to me like this might be a lovely way to give her a special moment with her son and reciprocate the generosity that she has shown you. Even if at some deep level you feel like she is competing with you somehow, I would still take the high road on this one. Your long term relationship with her is extremely important. This dance will come and go. The nice thing is that dancing isn’t an zero sum thing… there’s always more dancing to go around, and people will cry and enjoy all of it.

    If what’s underneath the stress is a worry about you taking a second seat to his mom in your life together, that is worth thinking about. First, to cross check it with reality (is this a legitimate worry? What are the occasions where there might not be room for both of us? Has she done anything to cultivate a dynamic of competition?). If you still feel a nagging worry, then it’s probably worth discussing with your fiance.

    Good luck!

  • RJ

    I am a regular dancer (Ceroc Modern Jive- which I highly recommend) – and I think you can have this both ways.

    A couple who recently started said they had it perfectly sorted – he started 6 classes before her.

    As the guy leads (and it takes a while to get comfortable with that, and many guys didn’t have ballet class as a kid), Men having 2 x the amount of lessons as women can work super-well all round.

    Also, to be good dancers (and really enjoy dancing with each other), it really helps to dance with other people – and do a dance class, which you could take together.

    Maybe you could do it all together? Here’s some info on Modern Jive – which is a great dance that anyone can learn (even those with two left feet)

    Standard advice for wedding couples is to do a group class, practice in the freestyle together, and take a few lessons on top.

  • I’m so thankful for this post! I, too, struggle with this mother-son issue. There are times that I want more boundaries set. But deep down I know that my fiance is more patient with me, more loving, and more understanding of my feelings because he has done that with his mother his whole life. So although there are times when I do make a fuss about things and get into overreaction-territory, I really am very thankful for their relationship. I think the whole “he just didn’t know” is a very good piece of advice (one I need reminding of often). I’m still learning how to say upfront “I just want to eat breakfast the morning of our wedding day with you and only you.”

  • Another way to look at it would be that your fiancé/husband would be extra good at dancing, which is important as usually the guy is the lead. You two should take lessons in addition to the ones he and his mom are taking.

  • I love all the advice other readers have given on the post! I had just one other thought: with the letter-writer’s introduction about cutting traditions, perhaps she meant that she hadn’t envisioned parent/child dances (or at least a mother/son dance) as part of their wedding reception at all, but that she and her fiance hadn’t specifically discussed omitting or including it? If the mother in law is going to be dancing in front of all the guests in a special parent/child dance, than I completely agree with Alyssa! I would want to be prepared too! But maybe part of the issue here is that the writer wasn’t planning on the mother in law being featured in that way and isn’t sure she’s comfortable with it happening…