The First Dance: A Last Chance at The Old Romance

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama began their round of inaugural balls at the Neighborhood Ball, where they danced to a live rendition of Etta James' "At Last" by Beyonce. Video by AP
Sunday, January 25, 2009

The new president and first lady attended 10 official inaugural balls Tuesday night and dutifully performed a brief cheek-to-cheek makeshift two-step again and again. And again. Occasionally, Barack Obama would give Michelle a twirl. He leaned in extra close and the crowd applauded. When he kissed her on the cheek, the crowd cheered.

He prefaced their dances by repeating the same laugh lines: that he was going to dance with "the one that brung me." And that she does everything he does except backwards and in heels. Surely, Fred Astaire's estate should have been given some sort of royalty payment by the time the night was over.

The couple had their first dance at the Neighborhood Ball, where they were serenaded with "At Last," the Etta James classic covered by Beyoncé. (The starlet had been dressed by Italian designer Giorgio Armani, which seemed a little odd since she had such a high-profile role on such an American occasion. But isolationism is passe, we suppose. And, she looked lovely. So we move on.) By the time all the photographs and video rolled in from across the city, it was virtually impossible to distinguish one slow dance from another.

There has been dancing at these balls from the very beginning, although some presidents went without. Since the first couple can't exactly hit the dance floor surrounded by the masses -- even if they have been scanned by the magnetometer -- they must execute their moves with a 30-second twirl onstage. The whole thing becomes an exercise in awkwardness.

But really, it has been a long time since the inaugural ball dance was really a dance at all. It is essentially a choreographed goodbye as the first couple take their final steps into the impenetrable security bubble.

Early in the evening, as they swayed and she twirled, the Obamas looked self-conscious onstage with a crowd ogling her dress and filing away the image for the morning-after postmortem. Having a romantic moment with one's spouse can be difficult when the whole country is trying to figure out the subtleties of meaning between a hand placed on the shoulder vs. one laid in the small of the back. By the end of the night, they seemed a bit looser, but only by a smidge.

At first glance, their dance has a resonance akin to the wedding dance or the first slow dance of senior prom. At a wedding, that dance is meant to assure the guests that the marriage will be a fairy-tale romance and the couple will live happily ever after. The wedding dance marks a beginning. So does the one at prom. It signifies the end of high school, but it also marks the point at which teenagers shift into adulthood, the point at which the things they do really count.

The inaugural dance serves as the long farewell to the commoners on a day overloaded with pomp and grandeur. No matter how many times the Presidential Inaugural Committee said all the hoopla was in service to the average person, the day retained its hierarchy. The VIPs lived in their little universe of cordoned-off rooms, separate entrances and close-up views of Oprah.

The dance is a charade, a chance for folks to pretend they're witnessing something intimate and spontaneous from the first couple. It's a royal performance. It's like when the Obamas emerged from the armored Cadillac to walk a few blocks along the parade route and people reacted as if something unplanned had happened, as if the first couple had been lured from behind their secure zone by the crowd's cheers and plaintive waves. Everyone knows that isn't the case, but still, that's the look of it and that's all that really matters.

The same thing happens during the dance. At each ball he's received as witty and droll and it doesn't matter that he's been saying pretty much the same thing at each stop and everyone pretty much knows that because they've been Twittering and instant-messaging. And when he takes his girl in his arms, people start grinning in that goofy way that is a cross between delight, awe and creepy false intimacy.

It's a strange moment because it's not as if people are expecting them to be expert dancers -- although that would be a pleasant surprise. Folks are far more charmed when they look like teenagers at the prom, with him in his brand-new tuxedo, his too-big collar and his crooked bow tie and her struggling with the train of her gown. (Let us trust that such awkwardness will be remedied before the first state dinner.) Buh-bye normalcy. Henceforth we will peer at them as if they are curious and rare creatures, fascinated by the anthropology of their lives, enthralled when they exhibit signs of banal behavior. Will Michelle Obama go out to lunch with friends? Will he attend Wizards games?

We innately understand that no matter how many of their friends move to town from Chicago and no matter how many dinner invitations arrive from Washingtonians, they have only each other in the bubble. The dance serves as a chance for citizens to search for signs that that will be enough and that they'll be okay. The eye searches for reassurance that their relationship is secure. And they placate us by doing all the right things. He talks about how pretty she is, this love of his life. And her own role in these moments is to be pretty, to be attentive, to be uncomplicated.

The dance is not about the music or the moves. It is a symbolic end to a life that is merely lived. The next morning brings the start of a life that is tightly sealed.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company