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Mermaid ballets, giant ice-creams, acrobats and cars full of cookies, Helen Hill looks at celebrations the American way

November 1, 2011

The old joke about the safari barmitzvah celebrants finding out that they weren't first in the landscape isn't so funny any more. Each year it gets harder for some parents to impress their friends with an original and amazing celebration.

Yes, the concept is skewed when materialistic values outweigh the spiritual. A bat or barmitzvah is essentially a religious event that should be meaningful, respectful and tasteful. Many families do hold quiet synagogue luncheons, undertake community projects or travel to Israel with only close family for their son's barmitzvah. But there are others who want to celebrate the occasion by making an unforgettable simchah for their child.

While Anglo-Jewry has enjoyed its share of theatrical events, a contingent of the Royal Horseguards cantering around the ballroom; a circus theme with the barmitzvah boy as ringmaster and can-can dancers, whose high kicks revealed an embroidered mazeltov strategically emblazoned across their costumes. Americans have probably taken OTT bat- and barmitzvahs to unimagined budget heights.

A memorable batmitzvah in a home in Boca Raton Florida played out its Little Mermaid theme with water ballet dancers performing in several pools built specially for the occasion. The floor of the main tent was built over an aquarium with guests seated at glass topped tables. Then a dramatic scene unfolded - a drum roll, followed by a spotlight focusing on the top of the tent. All eyes were turned to see a large clamshell slowly descending to the dance floor. The clam shell opened – more drum rolls – to reveal a smiling batmitzvah girl. Dinner began with individual ice sculptures with "caviar" embedded in the centre and moved on to other exotic dishes while bungee jumpers and acrobats cavorted overhead. At dessert time, high cushions and long spoons were brought around to each seat, so that guests could reach the top of 4ft-high ice cream sundaes.

Upscale weddings have their own ambiance best described as style meets sophistication. "We meet with the bride to see what her dreams are and help understand her taste," says party and wedding planner Robert Torres, of Grande Affaires in Miami. "The modern bride is an independent thinker, she's no longer confined by the ideas of her parents." What the future bridegroom thinks isn't mentioned.

For a circus theme, can-can dancers revealed a 'mazeltov' message emblazoned on their costumes

The bride's choice of wedding dress gives further clues; is her vision traditional, formal or more avant garde and how does that fit into the wedding design's "mood?" Torres estimates that 50 percent of the budget goes for food and bar and 50 percent for décor including flowers, lighting and a good band.

Torres says he aims for modern elegance in planning a wedding. He believes that a bride feels like a princess when a soft colour palette of champagne with cream and silver accents is highlighted in invitations, flowers and table settings and even white chocolate martinis. Or he might suggest more dramatic jewel colours mixed with bronze or pewter to create a different statement.

Creating an environment for guests to interact is a definite trend. No longer do guests have to sit next to the same person for hours. Instead, there are inviting lounge areas for sitting and schmoozing. If the area next to the main room needs redefining, then couches in different sizes and shapes - straight, circular or serpentine - are rented for the event. Hired pedestal tables, columns and bars illuminated with the soft glow of LED lights add a buzz to the surroundings and dining chairs made of clear polycarbon also pick up and softly reflect coloured lighting. One popular make of chairs has picture frames built into their backs, the better to show off photos of the bride and groom or other celebrants.

For dining, separate round or oval tables may give way to other configurations. At one event 90 guests sat at a giant X-shaped table while at another dinner the tables were arranged like a bow-tie. One eye-popping layout was made up of a gigantic amoeba-shaped table curving around the ballroom to seat all the guests.

Flower power still rocks - those tables with towering trees and tropical extravaganzas, blossoming high into the air.

Occasionally seen these days are edgy, upside-down flower arrangements with lavish displays of calla lilies, stems pointing up, hanging dramatically above tables and strung out across the room. A newer trend is for three or four mono-colour flower arrangements clustered on each table.

While the main courses are served on those tables, desserts merit their own space.

Move over chocolate fountains, caterers are always looking to raise the bar, such as offering a set-up for making s'mores. This American tradition involves graham crackers (digestives), marshmallows and layers of chocolate roasted over summer campfires. In one ballroom, an 8ft-long holder was set up covered in smooth rocks, with canned heat positioned every few inches. In front were all the fixings and skewers for guests to roast their own s'mores over the flames as nostalgia reigned..

Wedding cakes still appear in all their glory, but a new trend replaces one big cake with a cake bar of mini-cakes. The bride and groom each choose their favourite nosh, including grandmothers' special recipes, and the pastry chef makes them in a dazzling range. After a ceremonial opening of the cake bar, guests are invited to sample the offerings and even fill up boxes "to go."

Just in case guests didn't get enough confections, small boxes of freshly baked cookies (biscuits) are also put in their valet-parked cars to sweeten their ride home.

Last updated: 3:53pm, November 1 2011