When do politicians dance? Part 1: All in a day’s work

o04_20049318.jpgThrough Speeching I am interested in thinking about political speeches as if they are dances or performances, but what about when politicians actually dance?

The first and oldest reason is if dancing is an actual requirement of political office; if it is part of a politician’s job. This might seem a little strange but here in the UK, politicians take part in a yearly symbolic and carefully choreographed performance – the State Opening of Parliament which marks the beginning of the parliamentary session.

In it the monarch formally opens Parliament and in a speech, outlines the Government’s proposed policies, legislation for the upcoming session. But it is laden with symbolism and ritual, for example “The Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest of the royal bodyguards, armed with lanterns, searches the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a practice which dates back to the Gunpowder Plot” and “a government whip is held “hostage” at the Palace to ensure the Queen’s safe return.”

The Yeomen of the Guard pick up their lamps in preparation for checking the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a tradition carried out before every State Opening of Parliament since the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Image: Parliamentary copyright/ Roger Harris
The Yeomen of the Guard pick up their lamps in preparation for checking the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a tradition carried out before every State Opening of Parliament since the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Image: Parliamentary copyright/ Roger Harris

At one point in the ceremony, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshall – walk backwards to show respect to the Queen as they lead her procession into the House of Lords and an official known as The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod acts as the Queen’s messenger to summons the Members of Parliament to the House of Lords. A door is slammed in his face three times before they finally allow him to lead them to hear the Queen’s speech. All eccentrically British, but it serves to embody different components of the British political system, their current and historical relationships.

Dance did play a functional role in the royal court of the 17th Century France: “Dancing masters, who were employed throughout Europe, not only taught dance technique but the rules of social etiquette. Through these stringent social standards, King Louis XIV used dance as a political tool to ensure his absolute authority.” Here is a clip from Le Roi danse (2000) a film by Gérard Corbiau depicting the rise of King Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, as seen through the eyes of a court composer.

Perhaps the closest one can find to this today is the US Presidential inaugural balls – large social gatherings held to celebrate the commencement of a new term of the President of the United States, dating back to 1789 with George Washington.

Here dance is something celebratory but it is also features a duet between the president and their spouse which everyone watches (somewhat like the first dance at a wedding) display their bodies in a certain form of graceful, traditional movement. (And it is worth noting that it is a duet rather than a solo or a group dance for example, signalling the leader as a family man/woman first and foremost).

I find it interesting to see how the dancing body of the leader is presented alongside their aspirations for the county – as George W Bush says “Before we get to work there’s some dancing to be done” – but both the dancing and the political words tell the American people things about who they have just elected. The body can inspire confidence — Gerald Ford’s political career was damaged not specifically by bad dancing but though his image as a clumsy man.

There isn’t anything like this in the UK as far as I am aware, but there are a couple of examples of state celebrations that involve (less codified) dancing. On New Years Eve 2000 then Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Queen sang and danced to Auld Lang Syne in the official celebration in the Millennium Dome (now the O2 for younger readers):

Picture: AP
Picture: AP

And in 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris John danced to the Spice Girls at the Olympic Opening Ceremony (a semi-politial cultural activity):

Although pretty much one-off events they are both cases where senior politicians were very much expected to attend in an official capacity because of their uniqueness. And once there, for them not to dance (in full view of television cameras) would be more strange than dancing, no matter how minimal or awkward that dancing is.

Next up I will be looking at dance as a form of diplomacy.

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2 thoughts on “When do politicians dance? Part 1: All in a day’s work

    1. Thanks Ellie! A great example that I’ll refer to in a future example (Michelle was even better on Ellen though :-))

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