05/09/2011 04:04 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2011

When First Ladies Dance: From Michelle Obama's Dougie to Jackie Kennedy's Twist to Betty Ford's Bump

This week's footage of a beaming Michelle Obama making a slicking-hair move as she danced the "Dougie" to Beyonce's "Move 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!"

Image Credit: AP

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.

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.

Legend claims Dolley Madison hosted dancing in the White House, but there's no evidence the former Quaker joined in.

As a widower father, President John Tyler had lectured his older daughters against the sins ofdancing, 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.

Mary Lincoln loved the quadrille, popular during the Civil War, but danced it only at events held 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 his opening line, "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."

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. 2011-05-06-FrancesClevelandsstaminahadhervigorouslywaltzingatWhiteHousedancesespeciallypopularwithEuropeandiplomats.jpg

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. 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.

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 was later glimpsed in a newsreel moving her legs in a quick semi-circle to a jazz dance played aboard a cruise she hosted for young women who succeeded in graduating, in June 1921. Mrs. Coolidge, on the other hand, simply learned a few Charleston steps from her teenage sons in the private quarters of the White House.


The three young adult sons and daughter of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt made dancing a permanent part of the White House tradition with annual dance parties hosted there for their many school 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 coal mining community of Arthurdale, West Virginia. Her stamina and footwork was captured in newsreels and a new square dance named for her, "The Eleanor Glide." 2011-05-06-EleanorRooseveltsquaredancing.jpg

To Read this story in its entirety, including stories, videos, and pictures of Jackie Kennedy doing the Twist and Betty Ford doing the Disco Bump, go to