Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance?: Obama Dancing

By Amy Brunvand

The rebirth of collective joy in the streets of America.
by Amy Brunvand
“Michelle may be a better dancer than me, but I’m convinced that I’m a better dancer than John McCain!”

—Barack Obama

Last summer on the beach when I read Barack Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From my Father,” it struck me that the pivotal moment in the distanced relationship between father and son was a dance.

When little Barry was 10 years old, his absent Kenyan father came to Hawaii to visit the son he had left behind as a toddler. To the little boy, his father in person presented just as much of a mystery as the dark-skinned stranger he had seen in photographs. Then, as Obama senior was packing to go back home, he discovered some recordings of African music that he had forgotten to upack. He put the records on a turntable, and the scene that follows is so beautifully written that it’s worth re-reading:

“Come Barry,” my father said. “You will learn from the master.” And suddenly his slender body was swaying back and forth, the lush sound was rising, his arms were swinging as he cast an invisible net, his feet wove over the floor in off-beats, his bad leg stiff but his rump high, his head held back, his hips moving in a tight circle. The rhythm quickened, the horns sounded, and his eyes closed to follow his pleasure, and then one eye opened to peek down at me and his solemn face spread in a silly grin, and my mother smiled and my grandparents walked in to see what all the commotion was about. I took my first tentative steps with my eyes closed, down, up, my arms swinging, the voices lifting. And I hear him still: As I follow my father into the sound, he lets out a quick shout, bright and high, a shout that leaves much behind and reaches for more, a shout that cries for laughter.

Obama senior died without ever seeing his American son again, so this one glimpse into his father’s soul had to make up for a whole fatherless lifetime.

But even though his father never really got a chance to teach him African dancing, Barack Obama the candidate had the distinction of moving beautifully. And—unusual for a political candidate—his dancing generally inspired admiration rather than ridicule. In October 2007 when Obama danced onto the set of the Ellen DeGeneres show he amazed viewers just by appearing rhythmic and natural, though he was self-deprecating when Ellen compared him to the other presidential contenders saying, “You’re the best dancer so far.” Obama acknowledged, “It’s a low bar.”

Perhaps Obama’s best dance moment came during the debate last January when he was asked about Toni Morrison’s famous characterization of Bill Clinton: “White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”

Obama responded, “I have to say that, you know, I would have to investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.”

“Well, I’m sure that could be arranged,” said Hillary Clinton.

The joke raised a delicious mental image of a macho dance-off between “Big Dog” Bill and “No Drama” Obama, but in a debate that was characterized as a bitter slugfest, it also restored a touch of humanity.

During the campaign it wasn’t just Obama who danced. Pretty soon people around him were dancing, too. An October 2008 New York Times article reported, “There is more dancing at Democratic rallies, more shouting out at Republican ones.” And by the time November rolled around it was possible to pull together a credible world-music dance set composed entirely of pro-Obama songs. (See sidebar.)

On election night, cold rain was falling in Salt Lake City so I was indoors watching the election results on television. Then Obama won, and TV cameras all over the country showed huge crowds of people literally dancing in the streets.

A year ago in this column I reviewed “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy,” by Barbara Ehrenrich, which is all about how this kind of ecstatic public celebration never, ever happens in America, and how the loss of collective joy has created a sense of something missing in our culture. And yet all over the country people were dancing, and I was particularly longing to be with a jubilant group in Washington D.C. who were dancing in front of the White House. In their silly grins and their pleasure I caught a glimpse of the “something” that has been missing in our country for far too long. u

Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a librarian at the University of Utah.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2008.