When First Ladies Dance: Before Michelle Obama's "Dougie" was Jackie Kennedy's Twist, Betty Ford's Bump, Eleanor Roosevelt's Glide and…

First Lady Michelle Obama demonstrates her “Dougie” dance, 2011.

This week’s footage of a beaming Michelle Obama making a slicking-hair move as she danced the “Dougie” to  Beyonce KnowlesMove Your Body shows a First Lady having more fun than usual. She was at Washington’s Deal Middle School not to demonstrate her moves but lead students in an enjoyable form of physical activity, a tenet of her anti-obesity campaign, “Let’s Move!

From her rocking it out on the “Ellen Show” during the 2008 campaign to the formal Obama Administration social events, this First Lady clearly loves to dance. Michelle Obama, however, is hardly the first to enjoy gliding over the waxed parquet on the wide, open East Room floor, or even the one who danced the most among her predecessors. In fact, her “Dougie” is but the latest link in a mini-history of popular American dance within First Lady History.

Abigail Adams and the Philadelphia mansion where she hosted the first presidential family dance party.

During the earliest presidencies, many First Families refrained from dancing in public to avoid the censure of pleasure often assailed by the popular religious press. Abigail Adams hosted the first known dance party in 1799, but she didn’t minuet at the private affair held for her young adult son Thomas and his friends, in then-capital Philadelphia’s presidential mansion.

Dolley Madison hosted the first dance party in the White House, but there is no evidence she joined in.

Legend claims Dolley Madison hosted dancing in the White House, but there’s no evidence the former Quaker joined in. Perhaps the most strictly religious FirstLady, Calvinist Sarah Polk not only banned card-playing and hard liquor in the White House but declared that dancing would be disrespectful in a place where law was made. She may also have been reacting to the radically different attitude of her predecessor.

Young Julia Tyler avidly danced the polka at the time Strauss compositions were widely circulating; for popularizing the dance, a series of "Julia Waltzes" was named in her honor.

As a widower father, President John Tyler had lectured his older daughters against the sins of dancing, but less than two years later, after eloping in June 1844 with the 24 year old Long Island debutante Julia Gardiner his views changed. During her short tenure as First Lady, Mrs. Tyler became the first to host social events built around an evening of dancing. While she felt the physical closeness of male and female during the waltz should be provocatively sensuous, she preferred the high-energy two-steps, polkas, gallops and trots, and so popularized them that a series of sheet music for dancing were named in her honor. “The Julia Waltzes” sold out so quickly the First Lady herself couldn’t get copies, giving stiff competition to the new Vienna waltzes being composed just then by Johann Strauss. Though unidentified, the depiction of a waltzing young woman below remarkably resembles Julia Tyler and represents her dance style.

At her husband's 1861 Inaugural Ball, Mary Todd Lincoln danced the quadrille with Stephen Douglas, the man her husband beat for the presidency

Mary Lincoln loved the quadrille, popular during the Civil War, but danced it only at eventsheld outside the White House, like the 1861 Inaugural Ball. Dancing proved fateful in her life. At an 1840 cotillion, the young, uncultured country lawyer Abraham Lincoln had been standing in the background, watching the witty, exuberant Miss Todd cut it up on the ballroom floor. Working up the nerve to approach her, he blurted out, “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you – in the worst way possible.” After a few turns in the ballroom, she often later joked, “And he did.” A recent demonstration of the music and dance style Mary Todd Lincoln would have enjoyed as First Lady:

In the post-Civil War era, moral restrictions on dancing eased and the first bona fide White House dance party was hosted by President Benjamin Harrison in 1889. Without the harsh retribution of the religious press to worry about, his successor’s wife, the tall and dark-haired Frances Cleveland frequently displayed her deft skill in the 1890s for the formal waltz of that era. Accustomed to waltzing at the balls and royal parties of their homelands, the European elite among the diplomat corps often vied for the honor to whirl the striking First Lady for the last number of the evening. At her final evening reception in March 1897, Mrs. Cleveland virtually remained in motion continuously, giving the diplomats one last whirl around the East Room with her.

Frances Cleveland's stamina for vigorous waltzing made her a popular partner for European diplomats.

In the imperial days of America’s emerging global power, the Blue Danube waltz became the established final dance at White House events, enjoyed at least once by First Lady Ida McKinley, despite her limited mobility, during a private1898 holiday party for her nieces and nephews. Even though he weighed nearly a ton, President William Howard Taft was noted for his light and precise steps with wife Nellie and other women relatives.

Miss Alice Roosevelt asked the Marine Band to play her ragtime favorite "Doin' The Grizzly Bear."

Concurrent to the traditional waltzing, however, the syncopated sounds of ragtime had made their way into the Marine Band repertoire and new, more sinewy types of dancing set to the jazzy sound were especially popular with young adult presidential children. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, for example, was famous for “doin’ the Grizzly Bear,” dance which scandalized her stepmother and father. Wilson’s young adult daughters often did the “cakewalk,” which derived in African-American communities.

Florence Harding (l) and Grace Coolidge (r) both tried some Jazz Age dancing - but never in public.

In the Jazz Age, both Florence Harding and her successor Grace Coolidge also made a few of the new moves of that era’s popular dance style generally thought of today as the Charleston. Mrs. Harding, the first to fly in a plane, vote, and regularly engage the press, was glimpsed briefly in a newsreel making some quick circular steps as a Navy jazz  band played popular music on a cruise she hosted for young college women graduates in June 1921. Mrs. Coolidge, on the other hand, simply learned a few Charleston steps from her teenage sons in the private quarters.

Eleanor Roosevelt square-dances to the "Eleanor Glide" in West Virgina.

Eleanor Roosevelt made dancing a permanent part of the White House tradition with annual dance parties hosted there for her teenage and young adult children and their friends and relatives, but the First Lady also enjoyed slipping down to dance to the popular new Big Band sound. While Eleanor Roosevelt never attempted the wilder moves of Swing, she held her own at square-dancing during a visit to the coalmining community of Arthurdale, West Virginia. Her stamina and footwork was captured in newsreels and a new square dance named for her, “The Eleanor Glide.”

The year 1960 not only marked the election of the youngest President John F. Kennedy but the dance phenomena of the Twist, and both converged in the White House. The world focused on the clothing and entertaining and lifestyle of First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Little did most people imagine, however, that she was also a “wicked Twister,” as one friend who saw the 31-year bend knees and elbows and turn like a corkscrew down to the East Room floor during a private party where the Twist was danced.

Jackie Kennedy dancing the Twist with her designer Oleg Cassini in the London home of her sister 1962.

By the time she’d jet-setted to the Amalfi Coast for a summer vacation in 1962, the pure version of the Twist was spinning into variations like the Watusi, which she learned in some of the Italian nightspots. Her mother-in-law Rose Kennedy recorded in her diary that when Jackie arrived from Italy at the family’s Cape Cod compound, the First Lady taught them all the specifics of the new dances. None of those other dances, however, quite shook up the pop culture as did the Twist that Jackie loved.

In the years since, all the First Ladies have danced in the White House, some more enthusiastically than others. President Lyndon Johnson loved dancing more than his wife Lady Bird Johnson, and he habitually twirled, waltzed and spun a dozen women guests at many parties. He found an enthusiast in his teenage daughter Luci, who introduced him to the wilder gyrations of the Sixties dances and was dubbed “Watusi Luci” by the press. Pat Nixon was known to only hit the dance floor with her husband at their daughter Tricia’s 1971 wedding, the President having been raised a Quaker and discouraged from dancing.

The Reagans dancing at a New Year's Eve 1987 party at Sunnylands the estate of their friends Walter and Lee Annenberg in Rancho Mirage California.

The Carters, Clintons and both sets of Bushes danced at state dinners and their respective Inaugural Balls, but were easily eclipsed by Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who never seemed to tire from either romantic slow-dancing or lively high-stepping numbers, preferring old-school show tunes rather than any contemporary dance music of the 80s. As dance partners, the Reagans worked smoothly in tandem, both displaying an ease and skill at a variety of styles.

The Obamas dancing at the Governor's Ball in the East Room, 2011.

Without question, Michelle Obama ranks among the few First Ladies who can really make a mark on the dance floor, but even she may be beat by the one woman who was a professional dancer and never lost her love for it as both art form and recreation.

With dance partners that ranged from frizzy-haired comedienne Marty (“Hello There!) Allen to England’s Prince Philip. Since her youth, Betty Ford had focused on studying the movement of dance. As a young teenager during the Depression, Betty Bloomer first worked in a dance studio in her home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan, teaching the foxtrot and Big Apple to adults and waltzing to little children.

Betty Bloomer (Ford) studying modern dance with Martha Graham, 1937.

She branched into the new and then-radical modern dance movement by studying at Bennington College with the legendary impresario and creator of the new style Martha Graham. She then pursued a professional career with the Graham Dance Company. Even after returning to Michigan, Betty stayed in the field, shocking staid Grand Rapids by importing modern dance into schools there and even staging a performance on the steps of the local Baptist Church.

As First Lady, Betty Ford seemed to dance all the time and in every style.

Betty Ford fell into place with dance students during a state visit to China, 1975.

On a state visit to China, she couldn’t help herself from joining students at a dance school. She did likewise, backstage, after attending a performance of Judith Jamison and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. On any given night when the Fords were officially entertaining, the First Lady could be found the center of attention, sometimes even guiding her less-agile partners, including Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and actor Cary Grant.

Betty Ford follows the lead of Judith Jamison in a impromptu duet at the opening of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater at Lincoln Center

Betty Ford dancing with newly-designated Vice President nelson Rockefeller in August 1974

In the spirit of Michelle Obama, Jackie Kennedy, Mary Lincoln, and Julia Tyler, Betty Ford also enjoyed the music and dances of the contemporary pop culture and in the mid-70s, that meant disco. Although her own teenage son and daughter preferred the rock of the period, Betty Ford learned the disco “Bump.”

Marty Allen dances the Bump with Betty Ford

Tony Orlando dances the Bump with Mrs. Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention

Though hamming it up with Marty Allen one night at the White House, she also got down to some serious bogey with popular singer and TV variety show entertainer Tony Orlando. She even put on an impromptu performance of her “Bump” with Orlando at the 1976 Republican National Convention, upstaging the entrance of future First Lady and wife of Ford’s leading party rival, Nancy Reagan.

Betty Ford danced on the Cabinet Room table on her last full day as First Lady in 1977.

Her position allowed Betty Ford to influence her husband to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom on her mentor and former teacher Martha Graham in 1976 – and even to audaciously kick off her heels and leap upon the smooth Cabinet table for a few steps. There was one prerogative, however, which the former dancer cited as proving to be the single greatest highlight to being married to the President.

She was able to command a legend from her childhood – Fred Astaire – and finally dance with him.

First Lady Betty Ford has a youthful dream come true - a dance with Fred Astaire.

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Categories: Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Betty Ford, Dolley Madison, First Ladies, Ronald Reagan, The Kennedys, The Lincolns, The Obamas

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9 replies »

  1. You are probably too young to remember (if you were around at the time at all) the hoo-haw over Mrs. Kennedy’s “twist”. That and the throwing people into the pool at Hickory Hill incident whipped the Right into a fury.

    There’s a good book in comparisons between the Lynch Mob of today and that of JFK’s time.


    • I’m surprised to hear that – I didn’t find much criticism related to that but did find criticism when people thought she was out dancing at a Miami nightclub called the Falcon when her father-in-law had a stroke or when was out strolling Capri or Ravello late at night with Gianni Agnelli.

      • Well, you have to remember, I was living in Texas at the time. The reaction couldn’t have been worse if she’d tried to re-create the “dance of the 7 veils”.

  2. There can be no lovelier homage to Betty Ford than your publishing the photos of her dancing. Beautifully done!

  3. I think that every person should have the right to enjoy music and dancing (any style they want!) It must be terrible to be in spotlight all the time….

    • I agree with you Mike – but I think those in the White House realize that there will always be somebody who approves or criticizes what they do…and approve or criticize what they chose not to do! Anyway, I appreciate your making the effort to write a comment. Cheers.


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