The Wedding Conga

When the Miami Sound Machine released “Conga” in 1985, I wonder if Gloria Estefan and the rest of the band knew their song would become a staple drunken dancing during wedding receptions. While I’ve never seen Gloria or the band perform it live, I can’t image a redition more gloriously steeped in greatness/cross-dressing than this one, courtesy of Hank Azaria’s Agador from The Birdcage (1996). The song has been featured in many films, including Dana Carvey’s unspeakably terrible 2002 ditty, The Master of Disguise. (Here’s a clip. Fast forward to the 2:10 mark for the song, to avoid the fall of the once brilliant thespian, Brent Spiner, who’s efforts brought Star Trek: TNG’s Data to life if nothing else. Aside: We are ignoring the existence of his role in Independence Day…)

The song beats through silver screen scenes in many a film, but most people recognize it from the various weddings they’ve attended. The snake-like widing through tables in the hall, conga-liners waving their drinks with one hand and holding the unsteady shoulder of the person before them, is an archtypal reception sight. It’s a dance I participated in last weekend, at the wedding of long-time friend (and basically little sister) Katie and great guy Kevin; and last month, at my wife’s cousin Alexander’s wedding. It’s a dance that, no doubt, I will partake in when my brother’s wedding rolls around in November. The Conga isn’t alone in wedding line-dance lore, however. Other staples include the Macarena, the Cha-Cha Slide, the Cupid Shuffle, Cotton-eyed Joe, and, of course, the Electric Slide.

But as I Conga-ed my way around the reception hall in the Mayfair hotel last weekend, clutching my Jack and Diet with my right hand and a shoulder with my left, I wonderful memory flooded my mind. It’s something that is forever etched into the wall of my memory. See, growing up in a family where parties always included music, growing up with parents who twirl and twist their way beautifully about a dance floor, finding myself in a place where the recognizable intro to Conga pulsed from the speakers… yet no one in the room moved was a strange sight.

A few years ago, when another of my wife’s cousins exchanged vows with her husband, the Conga brought the reception to a stand-still. Sitting in my assigned seat, beside my wife and other members of her wonderful family, the familiar beat pumped through the room. The reception was well into its second hour at that point, and the dance floor bore scratches from many a well-worn heel or wingtip. So, to my utter dismay, when Gloria implored the crowd to shake their bodies and do that conga, and not a single person shuffled to the head of a line, I sat stunned.

People stood frozen, as if Medusa had distributed Gorgon-headed wedding favors. Slack-jawed in my seat, I watched with rapt interest. The tune seemed like a foreign anthem in Fort Lauderdale, the beat fruitlessly commanding bodies to bounce about the room. Wedding Goers heedlessly milled, ignoring Gloria’s calls. Clearly, these people could control themselves for at least a moment more. Perhaps it was the lack of Latinos in the room, or the ill-timed playing by the DJ, as the tune pulsed through the hall, no bodies were shaking. I feared for a moment, this was a sign of the apocalypse. The four horsemen hadn’t made it into the room, they were probably at the carving station.

But, as inexorbly as the flight of the Garter succuming to Gravity, Wedding Goers soon found their bodies feeling the heat. The bride and groom shimmied to the center, as slowly, a conga-line coalesced behind them. Perhaps these Goers were afraid of an inability to dance, and it took Gloria imploring them not to worry before they allowed the music to move their feet. Within moments, the music struck Goers’ systems and they moved as if they were planning to party till the break of day.

The Universe was back in order.

As the line snaked through the room, hips and drinks swaying in unison, I doubled over in laughter. I had witnessed a frozen panic, the likes of which I had never seen, and likely will never see again. It was wonderful. People cavorted through the room, the beat having grown stronger within them. The four horsemen never made it into the room. (That carving station was tasty.) Alas, the Gorgon-headed favors lost their stone grip on the Goers, and the so-called rythmn of the island righted the world.

I left that wedding sometime later, toting perhaps my favorite wedding favor of all-time (a bag of whole bean coffee–thank you Tim), and an irrepressible memory. In the end, the joke may have been on me, as in my dismay, my drink and I never made it to the Conga line.

The image fades in my memory, but whenever the familiar beat pumps from the TV or radio, or my wife and I find ourselves at some couples’ nuptuals, it all comes flooding back, surfing a tidal wave of laughter. And as my brother’s wedding quickly approaches, I know that I will once again get myself together and hold on to what I’ve got before grabbing the nearest shoulder and making my way, snake-like, through the room.

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