Barack in the Ballroom

Dance critics assess the Obamas' ballroom dancing skills

Watching coverage of the inaugural balls Tuesday night was at times like eavesdropping on a table of gushing bridesmaids at a wedding. “I was struck when they did something that I remember from high school, which is the two arms around the neck and two arms around the waist and sort of swaying side to side,” former Wonkette Ana Marie Cox told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “And I think that’s a sign that it’s a very happy marriage. They are literally behaving like teenagers in love.”

To which Maddow responded, “I know this not the most momentous news of the day, but our new president is a good dancer.”

Other starry-eyed news accounts echoed the sentiment: The couple “glided confidently through their first dance last night at the Neighborhood Ball, showing the world that they’re as light on their feet as they are eloquent with words,” declared the New York Daily News (via Factiva). “If this White House endeavor hadn’t worked out so well, the Obamas could have been shoo-ins for ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’”

Hang on a second. That might be taking it a step too far. Surely Nigel Lithgoe wouldn’t have been impressed with the monotonous swaying back and forth—which, after all, did have more in common with an awkward first dance at a wedding. In spite of our years of dance training, we began to doubt our assessment: Were the commentators simply watching through the rose-colored glasses of Obamamania, or were the President and First Lady actually dancing well?

To find out, we consulted three dance experts to get their take on the performance. While everyone seems to agree that the Obamas were charming to behold as they swayed their way through ten inaugural balls, the dance experts wouldn’t exactly go along with Keith Olbermann’s characterization of the forty-fourth president’s dancing as “precise.” Indeed, if one were to seriously judge the first couple’s dance prowess, they would have lost major points for technique.

“They were both on time and they make a good dance couple, but he could use a little more variety, and he could’ve dipped her a little bit,” said U.S. Latin Dance champion Melanie LaPatin, who appeared with her partner, Tony Meredith, as a guest choreographer on season three of So You Think You Can Dance.” “And their hand-hold position, although very sweet and loving, was not exactly correct.” (The couple had their fingers intertwined—a big no-no.) “Once they have some time, they should definitely take some lessons,” added LaPatin, who also runs the Dance Times Square studio in Manhattan.

Even the most adoring newscasters commented on the President’s habit of treading on the first lady’s gown. “There is an element of upper body-lower body coordination required in the first lady’s dress,” Maddow said. “She’s having to move it around to avoid walking on it, and several times he stepped on her dress when he was dancing, and then she is teasing him about it.”

Dance Magazine editor-in-chief Wendy Perron said Mrs. Obama would have benefitted from a dress rehearsal. “She didn’t realize that this was a dress where she had to pick up her train,” she says.

In spite of the gaffes, the critics were forgiving in their assessments; after all, the Obamas danced at ten balls in three hours—after a very big day. “I think he has a natural grace and … a fine rhythmic acuity,” says Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt. “Rhythmically they were sharp. The swingouts with Michelle were rather clumsy, but endearingly so.”

What Obamas lacked in technique they made up for in charisma. Indeed, the couple’s little trip-ups only made them more lovable. “That’s an incredible scene to behold,” Today correspondent Natalie Morales told the MSNBC crew. “When the … President twirled Michelle onstage and did a little dip … everybody here couldn’t believe their good fortune to see a more personal side of this couple. Clearly they share so much love.”

Or, as the Daily News’s fairytale account so colorfully put it: “The vision of the First Couple dancing joyously was a romantic, storybook moment. They embraced, gazed into each other’s eyes and whispered words while millions watched.”

When it comes down to it, the world’s greatest dancers become so not only for their technique but for their ability to project emotion and to connect with audiences. So maybe the media wasn’t entirely off the mark. “I think what was endearing was that they love being close to each other, and I think that’s what a lot of people were seeing,” says Perron. “They just love being near each other. It’s not like they’re just posing, and I think that’s what makes them look like they’re good dancers—like Fred and Ginger.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Michelle Vellucci writes about dance and the arts in New York City.