ST. PAUL, Minn. — At first glance, it looked like just another homemade wedding video — a little fuzzy with the camera work slightly shaky as it zoomed in on two ushers standing by the door, holding a stack of wedding programs.
But almost as soon as the doors closed, it became apparent that this was no ordinary wedding video or wedding procession.
St. Paul couple Jillian Peterson and Kevin Heinz went viral 10 years ago when they decided to skip the traditional “Canon in D” and “Bridal Chorus” for their wedding march. Instead they picked Chris Brown’s “Forever” for the walk down the aisle — and they didn’t walk.
Instead, the bridal party broke all the rules, strutting, shimmying and handstanding their way to the altar. The groom even somersaulted down the aisle.
They didn’t know it at the time but their wedding entrance became the wedding moment of 2009.
To date, their wedding entrance video has been viewed more than 98 million times. It was so iconic that the comedy TV show “The Office” parodied it. Even T-Mobile riffed on it, spoofing it ahead of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s royal wedding in 2011. Time magazine also named it one of YouTube’s 50 best videos and Google made a Search On ad all about it.
Thursday marks a decade since their wedding, and the couple is still awestruck by the way their video went global. It was meant to be seen only by a few family members and friends who hadn’t been able to make it to the wedding.
“I think the list we sent it to was 20 people,” Peterson said.
‘Cheesy and weird’
Heinz said he put the wedding dance video on YouTube because it was really the best option at the time.
“It was a huge file. It was really a practical decision more than anything, which is funny in retrospect,” he said.
Almost immediately after posting, the video began racking up views. Peterson remembers it had about 50 when she went to bed. By the time she woke up, it had 100,000, and the views kept climbing.
Soon, messages started rolling in. Journalists began calling friends and family members, trying to get a hold of them. Then producers from the “Today” show called asking if the party would come to New York City and recreate the dance live on TV.
Sure, the couple said.
“It was cheesy and weird,” Peterson admitted, but they got a nice trip out of it with their wedding party.
Nix the trapeze
Peterson and Heinz knew they wanted to dance — rather than walk — down the aisle almost immediately after they got engaged.
“We just wanted to celebrate and we thought, ‘what better way to celebrate than to get it started right away?’ “ Heinz said.
The original idea was much more grandiose. It involved trapezes and Heinz was going to do a roundoff for his big entrance (like a cartwheel but landing on two feet instead of one).
The roundoff quickly got nixed “because I realized I would have hurt someone badly,” Heinz said, and it evolved into just the forward roll.
Talking the wedding party into dancing down the aisle proved to be no problem.
“Our group of friends and family, they’re the type of people that do that sort of thing,” Peterson said.
And for how well executed the whole thing was, the bridal party only had about an hour of practice time — a secret dance rehearsal on Thursday before the wedding rehearsal Friday night.
Showtime was Saturday at Christ on Capitol Hill in St. Paul, across from the Minnesota State Capitol. Much of it was improvised.
As the bride, Peterson didn’t make her entrance until the very end. She waited in the back, listening to the oohs and ahhs and the applause from the crowd, feeling like she was in a movie.
She’s glad a bridesmaid’s boyfriend — now husband — filmed it because she wasn’t able to see it.
After the video went viral and after they performed on national TV, offers began pouring in: book deals, celebrity wedding appearances — someone even wanted them to host a reality show. People sent them Christmas cards and trinkets. They got some 15,000 emails from around the world.
And then, of course, there was “The Office” parody, which they had no idea was happening. In fact, they were watching the episode live on TV when it aired.
The cast later sent Peterson and Heinz a big autographed photo of them doing the dance. It now hangs in Peterson’s office at Hamline University, where she is an assistant professor.
The couple never did take up that reality TV hosting gig or become professional YouTubers working the celebrity circuit. But they have no regrets.
“We knew we wanted to be fulfilled,” Heinz, 38, said. “We wanted to have kids and kind of wanted to show them how to live life and so we kind of kept doing our own thing.”
That included setting up a website for their video, where they collected donations for various charities.
The first was for the Sheila Wellstone Institute, which works to end domestic violence. The song used in their video was performed by hip-hop star Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to felony assault after beating then-girlfriend Rihanna ahead of the 2009 Grammys.
“It was important for us to redirect funds and attention that way,” Peterson said. “We knew we wanted to shut our participation down, move on to law school and grad school, and this was a way, it gave people something to do. If you wanted to be engaged with the video, you could go here, you could donate, you could feel like you’re a part of something bigger.
“And, (it was) a way to harness all the good positive energy we were getting from people. Let’s try to harness and do something with it and it was this.”
Over the past decade, they’ve raised over $70,000. They are now collecting donations for The Violence Project, which was co-founded by Peterson, 38. She’s an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University, where she’s been studying mass shootings. The project researches and provides training on criminal justice issues.
Meanwhile, Heinz is an immigration attorney in St. Paul, working on a number of asylum cases.
“We’ve got tough jobs but we’re pretty happy. ... We get to come home to this madness,” he said of their three children, ages 2, 5 and 8. “Organized and pretty beautiful chaos.”
Speaking of their kids, do they know their parents are YouTube icons?
Yes. They’ve seen the video many, many times, although it’s funny the family never seems to watch it on the wedding anniversary.
“I think it’s amazing because it’s unique,” said their oldest, Baron Heinz, though he jokes that he likes “The Office” version better than his parents’ video.
Calvin Heinz, 5, called it “pretty good.” His favorite part is when “mommy and daddy got married.”
But apparently, even one of the biggest viral videos of all time isn’t enough to make them super cool.
“Hmm...” Baron said. “Kind of.”