George Washington could really cut a rug. Abraham Lincoln absolutely could not.
While dancing doesn’t make or break a presidency, it can be quite useful — and it probably helped decide at least one election.
The most visible display of presidential happy feet nowadays occurs at inaugural balls, and President Biden didn’t have any of those.
But the whole story is so much more colorful than an obligatory twirl or shuffle every four years, and it cannot be told without dead canaries, a live chicken, the turkey trot, John Travolta, Dolley Madison and a bit of musical shade thrown (inadvertently) at the Queen of England.
Here’s a peek at all our presidents on the dance floor.
Great, good or really enthusiastic
For much of U.S. history, dances were key schmoozing events for the movers and shakers of the day, and these commanders in chief moved and shook with the best.
The first was (probably) the best
Dancing was a big part of the culture during the Founding Fathers’ time, said Catherine Allgor, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society. “It was a way to show that they were the proper kind of gentlemen to be your rulers.”
George Washington (1789-1797) was clearly the proper kind.
Fawning accounts describe his minuet prowess alongside his exploits in defeating the British. His travels often involved many graceful whirls around a ballroom, such as an event in 1779 at which he reportedly danced with a fellow general’s wife “upwards of three hours without once sitting down.”
Washington had no official inaugural ball, but some of his supporters held a party in his honor a week later at a fashionable dance hall in New York. Between receiving the bows and curtsies of the 300 or so guests, Washington danced a minuet and two cotillions with three different partners — none of whom was first lady Martha, who was still in Virginia getting ready for the trip north.
Adams reeled toward a presidency
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) was not known for his charisma, Allgor said, but he was quite the dancer — a skill his savvy wife, Louisa Catherine, would exploit to help him win the presidency.
Before the election of 1824, Louisa Catherine threw a ball that, counterintuitively, honored war hero and rival candidate Andrew Jackson on the anniversary of his triumph at the Battle of New Orleans. About 1,000 people showed up to their house, which had been specifically remodeled to accommodate large dances. Among the guests were most — if not all — members of Congress.
“The minute Jackson comes in, she greets him at the door,” Allgor said. “She holds onto his arm, she escorts him through the rooms. … She basically usurps the social spotlight.”
Louisa asked the band to skip the modern couples’ dances and play older cotillions and reels that required large groups to interact and cooperate. She made sure her husband was networking the heck out of the event.
Jackson left early for a ball thrown by his own supporters, but it was a dud because nearly everyone who mattered in Washington was at the Adams house, swinging round and round with John Quincy.
Fast-forward to that fall’s election.
Out of four candidates, Jackson got the most votes in the electoral college, but he didn’t get a majority. So the House of Representatives had to choose the winner.
“John Quincy Adams was elected president on the first ballot,” Allgor said of the controversial decision, “and the very gentlemen who danced in those cotillions and danced in those reels voted him president.”
Jackie said LBJ was good, so it must be true
Lyndon B. Johnson (Nov. 22, 1963-1969) learned to dance from his mother, who taught Texas Hill Country children to square dance and waltz. Several biographers wrote that he used the skill to his political advantage as an up-and-coming lawmaker, often taking the older wives of powerful congressmen for a spin.
It didn’t always go well. In “The Passage of Power,” Johnson biographer Robert Caro wrote that at one White House dinner dance, then-Vice President Johnson slipped while doing the twist and fell on a woman, knocking her down. “He lay on her like a lox,” a guest sniffed.
But as president, his moves typically got great reviews.
Washington Star society reporter Betty Beale wrote that “he had a good sense of rhythm and did a smooth foxtrot.” Jacqueline Kennedy proclaimed Johnson “a good dancer” in a 1974 oral history interview for the LBJ Library. In another, Tony Award-winning actress and comedian Edie Adams pronounced his fast fox trot “marvelous” and raved, “You don’t find dancers like that any more. Usually they’re sort of Milquetoast fellows, but boy, he knew exactly where he was going. I thought Gee, that’s good, this is a good strong man we’ve got up here running the country.”
Reagan brought glamour (and Travolta)
Former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) revived “old style, high society” ballroom dancing at the White House, and Nancy Reagan even insisted that Cabinet members join in, said David G. Wright, who played bassoon and saxophone in the U.S. Marine Band for Presidents Richard M. Nixon through Bill Clinton.
“They really dialed up the glamour,” said Anita McBride, who was director of White House personnel under Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
But it was disco that provided the most memorable dance floor moment of their White House tenure, in November 1985, when the Reagans hosted Britain’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
“Mrs. Reagan really wanted to show the young, beautiful Princess Diana a wonderful time,” said McBride. She invited dozens of A-list guests, such as Clint Eastwood, Gloria Vanderbilt and Tom Selleck. And she assigned one, John Travolta, to ask Diana to dance. (If Travolta had tanked, Mikhail Baryshnikov was there, as well.)
Photos from the evening show everyone off to the side like extras in a movie while the princess and the disco god dominated the floor, dancing to music from “Saturday Night Fever,” which the Marine Band learned for the occasion, Wright said.
“Everyone danced like at a Junior Prom,” Reagan would write in his diary. He cut a fine figure stepping with Diana himself, although that night, he was just the supporting cast.
Ike had fun, and that’s what counts
Several accounts suggest that Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) was an exuberant dancer, if perhaps not a terribly skilled one.
In high school, “he was a terrible dancer on the few occasions he tried the dance floor,” biographer Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in “Eisenhower: Soldier and President.”
As a plebe at the U.S. Military Academy, he couldn’t get the marching steps down and was initially assigned to the “Awkward Squad” for remedial practice. Later, he was busted from sergeant to private for “improper dancing” with the daughter of a Spanish instructor, according to author Jean Edward Smith in “Eisenhower in War and Peace” — although that speaks more to judgment than ability.
In 1915, however, the young Army officer asked Mamie Doud to a dance, and they married a year later. By the 1930s, they were regulars at officer’s club dances and members of the Saturday Night Dinner Dance Club at D.C.’s Willard Hotel.
All that practice apparently did not turn Ike into Fred Astaire.
“It was hard to tell what step we were doing or what beat Ike was listening to,” a London dance partner during World War II described in Smith’s book. “We were sort of hopping around the floor.”
Other good dance card options
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) and William McKinley (1897-Sept. 14, 1901) helped make social dancing popular at the White House, according to the White House Historical Association. McKinley’s jam was a then-popular American ragtime two-step called “Goo-Goo Eyes.”
William Howard Taft (1909-1913) no doubt appreciated their efforts. He enjoyed waltzing so much that he sometimes did it alone on the White House veranda, according to a biography by Jeffrey Rosen. A 1910 Washington Post story gushed: “Let President Taft encounter the combination of a good dancing floor, the strains of the Marine Band, and a score of attractive possible partners, and he is ready for just one spin, which is apt to lengthen itself into several waltzes before he is ready to leave.”
While a student at Harvard, future cavalry hero Theodore Roosevelt (Sept. 14, 1901-1909) wrote in an 1880 diary entry, “I am very fond of dancing; it is my favourite amusement, excepting horseback riding.”
And Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) looked quite comfortable stepping along with first lady Rosalynn Carter at one of his inaugural “parties” — “ball” sounded too fancy and formal — but he didn’t have many White House dances, according to Wright. A memorable one was organized in part by opera star Beverly Sills in 1978 and involved a lot of waltzes and fox trots.
So Carter could waltz and fox trot?
“I reckon he could!” Wright said.
He clarified that no presidents he’d seen did hip-shaking, high-kicking “Dancing With the Stars”-type ballroom steps. “Rich people don’t really dance — they walk,” he said. But some presidents definitely had more rhythm than others.
Saved by the first lady
Whether these presidents were competent dancers hardly mattered, because all eyes were on their partners.
Gerry was fine; Betty was better
Betty Ford was almost certainly the best dancer ever to occupy the White House.
She had trained since girlhood to be a professional and once performed at Carnegie Hall with the company led by modern dance icon Martha Graham. Health problems limited her White House shimmying, but the day before her husband left office, she took a twirl on the table in the Cabinet Room.
As for Gerald Ford (Aug. 9, 1974-1977), Wright said he was “a very good dancer,” but unfortunately, his most notable spin was remarkable for the band’s choice of music.
During a lavish state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II in 1976, the Marine Band was playing a three-song set when Wright, on sax, saw the crowd part. Here came the president, in white tie, and the queen, in a tiara, elegantly taking to the dance floor just as the band moved to the second song, which was …
“The Lady Is a Tramp.”
“It was just accidental,” Wright said, explaining that the songs were numbered, not named, and that the band didn’t realize the faux pas until an Associated Press reporter spread it around the world. “We didn’t see the significance at the time,” he said. “People were dancing. It was just a medley!”
Dolley had a ball
What is considered to be the first true inaugural ball celebrated first lady Dolley Madison. Her husband, James Madison (1809-1817), was there, too.
“She was the queen of this ball,” said Allgor, who wrote a book about Dolley. “I know James Madison was the president, but basically nobody even noticed him.”
While he was secretary of state, Dolley turned their F Street house into Party Central for D.C.’s political elite. (Fun fact: It is the same house John Quincy Adams later renovated specifically for dancing.) So a ball seemed fitting after she … er, he won the presidency.
The ball itself sounded mostly unpleasant, so stiflingly hot and crowded that people reportedly broke windows in the D.C. hotel ballroom to get some air.
But as first lady, she would be credited with introducing social dancing to the White House — even the waltz, which critics at the time derided as “the hugging process set to music.”
Jackie got a Pentagon chief to twist
The first televised inaugural ball was for John F. Kennedy (1961-Nov. 22, 1963), and Americans swooned over the ultraglamorous Jacqueline, who sat in a box overlooking the dance floor but didn’t dance.
Jacqueline Kennedy was still recovering from the difficult birth of John Jr. — she later said she needed a stimulant just to get out of bed after the inauguration — and the first couple’s first dance hadn’t yet become a tradition or obligation.
However, Jackie loved dancing, and when Chubby Checker’s version of the twist overtook America, it overtook the White House as well. She reportedly learned the dance from designer (and nightclub owner) Oleg Cassini and shared it with White House guests, including then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
In his book “Conversations with Kennedy,” former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee described former Post publisher Phil Graham splitting his pants during a twist lesson at the Kennedy White House.
Ballroom or ‘Mom dancing,’ Michelle made it cool
The moment was impossible to forget: Michelle and Barack Obama (2009-2017), the country’s first Black first couple swaying to Etta James’ signature song, “At Last,” sung by Beyoncé after his inauguration.
But Michelle’s music didn’t stop there. She made dancing a part of her mission to get kids moving, and she practiced what she preached.
She line-danced on “Ellen,” did the Dougie at a D.C. middle school and joined Jimmy Fallon in a comedy bit called “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” that was so popular they did a sequel. For eight years, she danced all over the place and made it look fun.
During a 2018 visit to Africa, her husband was captured on camera dancing a bit with his step-grandmother in Kenya. Later in the trip, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa compared Obama to Nelson Mandela, but said, “unfortunately, [Obama] cannot dance as well.”
Feigning astonishment, Obama rebutted, “I am a very good dancer. I just want to be clear about that” before he admitted, “Michelle is a little better.”
Give it up for two other first ladies
Julia Tyler married John Tyler (April 4, 1841-1845) during his presidency and was the first known first lady to dance in public during her time in the White House, according to the First Ladies Library. Her devotion to the waltz and polka helped popularize them in the United States. When John Tyler left office, the couple threw a “Grand Finale Ball” with 3,000 guests and nonstop champagne and dance music.
White House historian Matt Costello said that Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-April 12, 1945) would have learned to dance as a child, but after he contracted polio as an adult, he was barely able to walk — although that fact was largely hidden from the public. Eleanor Roosevelt, on the other hand, was athletic and learned to dance as a girl in boarding school in England. A 1940 newsreel video shows the first lady square dancing at a high school prom in Arthurdale, W.Va., the site of a federal homestead project that she championed.
Would rather join the band
Some of our most musically inclined presidents would rather jam than jitterbug.
Bill and Al’s excellent adventure
Bill Clinton (1993-2001) literally did join the band at several of his inaugural balls.
Although he and Hillary Clinton appeared reasonably at ease moving to songs such as “It Had to Be You,” the president was most in his element holding a sax.
He belted out “Your Mama Don’t Dance” at the Arkansas ball, wailed on “Night Train” backed up by the E Street Band at the D.C. Armory and joined Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band for “Changes in Latitude” at the Tennessee ball. News accounts such as this one and this one covered it all in detail, using the word “boogie” a disturbing number of times.
By far, the folks having the most fun dancing at any 1993 inaugural ball (or perhaps any inaugural ball, period) appeared to be Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper Gore, who got down with their bad selves to Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” and, of course, “You Can Call Me Al.” (They’re at 2:00:40 and 2:26:00 in this video, and it is worth scrolling through to see it.)
Did Wilson fear the turkey trot?
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) canceled his inaugural ball, saying it would be too pricey and frivolous for the solemn occasion. However, newspaper stories said the real reason was that he feared people would dance the turkey trot and other popular but provocative “animal dances.” (Wilson denied the stories.)
In his defense, the turkey trot was controversial. The Vatican denounced it, major cities tried to ban it and a New Jersey clergyman declared that it violated the Seventh Commandment (the adultery one).
But Wilson loved music. He played violin, sang tenor in college glee clubs, and reportedly could hit the high note at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
His second wife, Edith, said he was fond of dancing as well, but his tastes were more waltz and less bunny hug. In a book about Edith, a Secret Service agent confirmed once seeing the president dance a jig right after their wedding.
Nixon played piano (not drum sticks)
Before we talk about the musical abilities of Richard M. Nixon (1969-Aug. 9, 1974), we must address the chicken in the room.
In 1973, during an inaugural ball at the National Museum of American History, a Dominique rooster escaped from an exhibit on early American farm life, made it into a $1,000 VIP box and got much too friendly with a guest. To the rescue came the Smithsonian’s director at the time, S. Dillon Ripley — an ornithologist, conveniently — who soothed both sets of ruffled feathers.
No one saw the chicken dance.
On the other hand, everyone saw Nixon dance, and he wasn’t bad. In fact, he and first lady Pat Nixon started the first couples’ tradition of addressing inaugural ball guests and taking a twirl for the cameras.
But his musical love was the piano, and he wasn’t shy about tickling the ivories in public. He played his own composition on “The Tonight Show” in 1961, serenaded Duke Ellington at a White House birthday bash in 1969, and accompanied Pearl Bailey while she gave him grief at a White House function in 1974.
More boys for the band
Warren G. Harding (1921-Aug. 2, 1923) claimed to have played every band instrument except trombone and the E-flat cornet. Biographer Willis F. Johnson wrote that he would pick up instruments and rehearse with the Marine Band.
Harry S. Truman (April 12, 1945-1953) caused a bit of a stir as vice president in 1945, when he appeared to be having too much fun playing an upright piano at the National Press Club and posing for photos as megastar Lauren Bacall reclined on top of it. It didn’t entirely stop him from playing in public, though.
Better at other things
Dancing is not everyone’s forte. On the bright side, being included on a shortlist with Lincoln can’t be all bad, right?
At least Lincoln was a terrific president
“I think it’s safe to assume our greatest president was our worst dancer,” said Ted Widmer, historian and author of “Lincoln on the Verge,” who noted that Abraham Lincoln (1861-April 15, 1865) couldn’t sing, either.
Lincoln’s two left feet led to a meet-cute at a Springfield, Ill., dance, where he would first encounter his future wife, Mary Todd. The lanky young man approached Mary saying he wanted to dance with her “in the worst way.” She would later say that he did just that — danced with her in the worst way.
Still, Lincoln loved music, especially opera, and showed up but didn’t dance at his inaugural balls. Mary, on the other hand, famously danced a quadrille at his first inauguration — with Sen. Stephen Douglas, her former boyfriend and the man Lincoln had defeated for the presidency.
The Bushes were not light on their feet
At his 1989 inaugural ball at Union Station, George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) told the crowd, “You can say you saw it first here, a lousy dancer trying to dance his first dance with the first lady of the United States of America.”
He was not wrong.
Said Wright, who observed the Bushes many times doing brief, obligatory dancing at state dinners, “You could tell that when they walked off the dance floor, they were glad not to be dancing anymore.”
Twelve years later, George W. Bush (2001-2009) would spend 29 whole seconds at his first inaugural ball moving to “Waltz Across Texas,” according to Jim Bendat, who wrote a book about inauguration days.
So he and Laura were attempting a waltz? “Probably,” Bendat said, “but not successfully.” Washington Post reporter Ann Gerhart likened it to “the Bataan Death March set to music.” Fortunately, Bush inherited his father’s sense of humor along with his two left feet.
“I want you to know it's hard to dance on carpet,” Bush told the press corps more than once. “That's my first excuse. My second excuse is that I'm a lousy dancer.”
These folks get points for trying
“Pitiful” is how newsmagazine producer Charles Lachman characterized the moves of Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) in a 2013 investigative book called “A Secret Life.” (To be clear, the thrust of the investigation was not Cleveland’s dancing.) After a ball in Buffalo, Lachman wrote, “a leading Buffalo socialite with a gift for mockery even wrote a verse about the spectacle of observing Grover Cleveland on the dance floor.”
Donald Trump (2017-2021) rarely danced in public until recently. But his fist pump, the go-to move in his rally-closing “YMCA” choreography, is not new. It made a cameo in his inaugural ball dance as he shuffled with first lady Melania Trump to Frank Sinatra’s signature song, “My Way.”
Preferred to sit out
Some presidents didn’t dance for various reasons, including poor health, religious objections or personal preference.
Neither Grant nor the birds enjoyed this
A strict Methodist upbringing meant Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) didn’t learn to dance as a boy, and neither of his inaugural balls would’ve made him want to take up the hobby later in life.
The first, held in the Treasury Department building, was massively overcrowded, which led to brawls and thefts at the coat check.
To avoid a repeat four years later, a large, temporary but lavish structure was built in Judiciary Square to accommodate the ball. Organizers spared only one expense: heat. This oversight, combined with the fact that the day’s high temperature was 20 degrees, exposed one of history’s more unfortunate decorating decisions.
At least 100 canaries had been brought in to add some cheery chirping to the ambiance, and they were suspended in cages over the frigid dance floor, where 3,000 guests shivered in overcoats and hats.
A Washington Evening Star the next day mentioned the birds being “too cold to sing,” which was apparently a bit of an understatement.
By the time the Grant family arrived at 11:30 p.m., biographer Ron Chernow wrote in “Grant,” “canaries had started to keel over and die in droves on their perches, the first martyrs to Grant’s second term.”
More who stayed off the floor
John Adams (1797-1801) undoubtedly knew how to dance, said Sara Martin and Sara Georgini, two editors of the John Adams papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It was a job requirement, particularly during his nearly 15-year career as a diplomat in Europe, but he clearly considered it an unpleasant obligation. In a 1776 letter, the Founding Father listed “So much Musick and Dancing” as one of the arguments against a monarchy.
Like Adams, Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) danced only when absolutely necessary. The Hoover Library has a dance card from 1895 showing that young Herbert signed up to do the two-step with future first lady Lou Hoover, but he disliked dancing, and the couple gave it up after they got married.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) actually did enjoy dancing (and playing violin), but he hated the pretentiousness, dealmaking and wheedling for jobs that often went along with dances in the political realm, Allgor said, so he hosted no balls at his White House.
If James K. Polk (1845-1849) danced, he probably kept it on the q.t. His wife, Sarah, was a gracious hostess, but she was also a Methodist who didn’t drink, dance or attend the theater, according to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. She discouraged “lighthearted” music at her White House parties so that guests wouldn’t be tempted to dance.
James Buchanan (1857-1861) is in this category because of the one evening he almost certainly did not shimmy around the dance floor. On the same page of the New York Daily Times that recounted his inauguration and inaugural ball, another story announced to the nation that the new president was suffering from a severe bout of diarrhea.
Such a revelation would have mortified Calvin Coolidge (Aug. 2, 1923-1929), who was shy and a bit of a wallflower, according to a story from his presidential foundation. As a young man, he attended country dances but didn’t dance.
It’s hard to tell, really
Information on some presidents’ dance habits is scarce, so if you have proof that, say, Millard Fillmore could polka like a boss, please let us know. (We had high hopes for clarification from the Millard Fillmore Presidential Library, but it is actually a dive bar in Cleveland.)
Some may have been good
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) “was more agile and athletic than people imagined, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a good dancer,” James Bradley, co-editor of the Van Buren Papers, said in an email. He could think of only one example of the president dancing, at a Washington reception in the 1820s — and it sparked rumors that the widower Van Buren was “courting” his partner.
“I think it’s safe to say Jackson liked music and dancing, but getting more specific than that is hard,” wrote Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) biographer Mark Cheathem in an email. Ditto for James Monroe (1817-1825). Jarod Kearney, curator of the James Monroe Museum and Library, said the president certainly attended dances, but it’s tough to know how much he participated.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) and his wife, Lucy, brought big-name musical performers to the White House, including soprano Marie Selika Williams in 1878, the first known African American artist to present a program there.
But as for dancing, it appears that Hayes “was more of an observer of the practice than a participant,” historian Dustin McLochlin of the Rutherford B. Hayes Library said in an email. “We may say the same thing of preaching and dancing,” Hayes wrote in a diary entry in 1892. “There is preaching that is helpful and dancing that is helpful; there is preaching that is sinful and dancing that is sinful.”
For others, we have few clues
Millard Fillmore (July 9, 1850-1853) and wife Abigail “came from rather humble beginnings, so dancing was probably less essential to their social status or central to their upbringing,” said White House historian Costello. In addition, Abigail had a bad ankle that made standing painful, so chances are that dancing, at least for her, was out of the question.
Any inclination toward dancing that Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) may have had probably was suffocated before he reached the White House. Between his election and inauguration, his 11-year-old son died in a train derailment and his vice president contracted a fatal illness. Pierce canceled his inaugural ball and entered office grieving and exhausted.
Chester A. Arthur (Sept. 19, 1881-1885) lost his wife, Nell, to pneumonia the year before he took over for Garfield, and shortly afterward, the president would learn he had a fatal kidney disease that caused debilitating fatigue. He loved to host big parties but probably did not do a lot of dancing.
Three president’s tenures were too short to include much dancing. William Henry Harrison (March 4-April 4, 1841) died of an illness after just a month in office. Dance music was written for war hero Zachary Taylor (1849-July 9, 1850), who died of a gastric ailment 16 months after his inauguration. And James A. Garfield (March 4-Sept. 19, 1881) died six months into his presidency of complications from a bullet wound after an assassination attempt.
Like Fillmore, Andrew Johnson (April 15, 1865-1869) grew up poor; his wife, Eliza, taught him writing and math after they were married. But the Johnsons had many children and grandchildren, and their White House was reportedly homey and filled with lots of kid-friendly music and dancing. So who knows — he might have absolutely rocked the 19th-century equivalent of the hokeypokey.
As for President Biden (2021-), we will have to wait and see.
He and Jill Biden danced a bit to “I Can’t Stop Loving You” after his second vice-presidential inauguration in 2013. In 2012, he did a hora at his daughter Ashley’s wedding. (Unfortunately, the White House released only a still photo.)
On his first evening as president, he just bounced a bit with toddler grandson, Beau, in his arms as Demi Lovato sang the Bill Withers classic “Lovely Day” during the televised extravaganza that substituted for an inaugural ball. It wasn’t a terribly dance-friendly scenario, a White House room with a big-screen TV. But when the first lady cut loose a little, he didn’t seem terribly inclined to follow.
If dancing just isn’t Biden’s thing, he’s in good company. Even the “minueter in chief” at some point had enough.
In 1799, Washington politely declined an invitation on behalf of himself and Martha, saying, “Alas! Our dancing days are no more,” before wishing well to “those who have a relish for so agreeable and innocent an amusement.”