The First Couple: Dancing the night away

The new President and his wife attended 10 balls after his inauguration. Leonard Doyle reports
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It was a few minutes after midnight at the Southern Ball, the final stop in a whirlwind of official parties thrown in honour of the new First Couple. "Silence your mobiles," boomed a voice that will announce Barack Obama's arrival wherever he shows up for the next four years. High-heeled Southern belles and their black-tie partners crushed against the stage barriers as a brass band struck up "Anchors Aweigh." Thousands of bare arms shot into air, cameras and mobile phones at the ready.

The voice boomed out again: "The President of the United States and First Lady Michelle Obama," as if anyone doubted who was about to appear from behind the stage set.

The South, with the exception of North Carolina and Florida, voted for Mr Obama's rival John McCain. Many thought it was poetic justice that the Southern Ball was held in a cavernous and drafty National Guard Armoury on the outskirts of Washington and it was the final stop on a seven-hour marathon of ball-hopping for the first couple.

But the moment Michelle Obama stepped onto the stage, wearing a stunning ivory chiffon, ballgown there were gasps of excitement. A thousand flashbulbs lit up the room as the brass band played.

"I have the special honour of being the guy who Michelle Obama brought with her to the ball," Mr Obama said. In the pandemonium, a woman near the front tottered off her heels and briefly passed out, only to be caught by her partner before hitting the floor.

The South loves formality and style, all of which Mrs Obama delivered, reminding many in attendance of the glamorous days of Jackie Kennedy. The President and his wife danced a slow two-step before he spun her once in a half-turn, spreading near delirium through the audience. The military guard that bore the colours of the US armed services then trooped out and, in an instant, the First Couple had vanished too, whisked off to the White House after a day of non-stop parades, speeches and dancing.

The back-to-back inaugural balls dotted around the city are really not balls at all. Nobody except the presidential couple and Vice-President and his wife Jill actually got up to dance at the Southern Ball or any of the other parties. At each event, they were probably on stage for less than 10 minutes, just enough time for a couple of dances and a political pep talk.

Cassandra Branch, from Nashville, didn't seem to mind. "Oh man. That's beautiful. To see them, they're so much in love."

There was no chance, even for the Southern belles, to take a turn on the dance floor such was the crush of people. Instead there was a line of people getting photographs taken underneath a presidential seal and a stage setting that will allow them to brag to their friends.

Everywhere they appeared, there was the same breathless enthusiasm for the First Lady.

At the Neighbourhood Ball earlier in the evening Mr Obama asked: "How good looking is my wife?" as they emerged on stage hand-in-hand, her full length dress glittering. He then proceeded to step on his wife's hem.

Long after the President and First Lady had been spirited away to their first night at the White House, a special party held for the thousands of young volunteers on the Obama campaign was still rocking.

Jason Wu: The dress designer

Michelle Obama took centre stage on inauguration night, putting an end to weeks of speculation by emerging in an ivory chiffon dress that confirmed her status as America's new First Lady of fashion.

The floaty gown, by 26-year-old designer Jason Wu, drew ecstatic cheers at all 10 of the celebratory balls that a new President and his wife are traditionally required to attend – and dance at – during their first night in office.

Commentators said the outfit, which had a single shoulder strap and was flecked with organza flowers and crystals, helped Mrs Obama, 45, strike a perfect balance between stylishness and formality. Some compared her to the late Jackie Kennedy.

"Here is a bolder woman, a serious woman from Chicago and Harvard who is not afraid to express herself with fashion," said the New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn.

"Her clothes tell us that she has an adventurous spirit, as well as a sense of humour, and if some of these garments have almost an old-fashioned womanly quality, then they tell us that she is indeed not your average fashionista."

The choice of Wu, a gay designer who was born in Taipei but grew up in Vancouver (and studied in Paris and Tokyo) was also seen as a canny political gesture. He has described Mrs Obama as "the ultimate person to dress... there's no muss, no fuss".

Not everyone was entirely convinced, though. In an entry headlined "Slightly better at night", the influential and celebrity blogger Perez Hilton declared: "While not a home run, we think the evening outfit was much better than what she wore during the day."

Guy Adams