We can think of dance diplomacy here in the same way that we think of dinner diplomacy – as a ‘soft’ form of engagement, personal and intimate. Dance and dining are activities that involve contact at an equal level – something that is informal, enjoyable, and can operate outside of all other status.
Partly this is about being seen in a trusted, intimate position with a head of state. The same motivation that in 1939 drove the Prime Minster of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, remove King George VI from the original photograph with the PM alongside Queen Elizabeth. “The photograph was used on an election poster for the Prime Minister, so the theory is that an image of just Mackenzie with the Queen put him in a more powerful light. (Source: fourandsix.com)
So when Queen Elizabeth II visited the U.S for its bicentenary in 1976, her dance with President Gerald Ford symbolised the cordial coming together of two nations separated two hundred years before by war:
Dancing also involves sensitivity to one another, timing and rhythm. And these qualities can extend metaphorically to the countries governed by the dancing leaders. So when President Bush used a private visit to King Abdullah’s ranch in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia in 2008 to appeal for an increase in oil production, they found themselves dancing together. Although they were holding ceremonial swords (they are both leaders of armies of course) they were literally ‘arm in arm’ and ‘in step’ with one another, facing in the same direction:
The image of politicians dancing together are extremely powerful are much more widely understood and quickly disseminated than any words. For example when US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton danced in Pretoria at the South African Presidential Guest House, the footage went viral.
Hilary Clinton is particularly good at dance diplomacy as evidenced in her 2009 tour of Africa (including Malawi, Liberia and Kenya) also demonstrating that the dances do not have to be with heads of state in order to show a human coming together of nations. Here the levelling effect of dance on the body is quite apparent.
Perhaps this is most possible or most important where the two countries have a perceived or historically unequal status – the higher status country can afford to appear ordinary and accessible, and quite clearly benefits from this too. I wonder if the South African foreign secretary would join in a line dance?
Barack Obama got in on the act recently too. In 2010 he visited to India to build trade links and met with college students to discuss two-way U.S.- India relations. But what really drove home this message of co-operation was footage of Barack and Michelle Obama joining some school children in a traditional dance during a Diwali celebration. This is particularly important in a country “where everyone from teenage boys to septuagenarian aunts dance at weddings, a reticence to join the dance floor is seen as a troubling sign of a possible character flaw“.
And even George Bush’s much mocked dancing with Kankouran West African Dance Company in the White House’s Rose Garden in 2007, was actually a canny piece of diplomacy during a Malaria Awareness Day event, signalling a togetherness with the countries that the U.S. government was providing aid to. Although it is worth watching how Bush starts making up his own moves and the company members join in to avoid embarrassing him.
A similar example is former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell dancing with Nigerian hip-hop artist Olu Maintain onstage at a 2008 ceremony at the Albert Hall celebrating achievements from the African continent. Powell reportedly told the audience that “his own black identity mattered as much as ever” – presumably his dancing, albeit badly and in a suit, was a way to assert that physically. He looks more awkward than Bush though.
There seem to be few examples of British politicians engaging in dance diplomacy and perhaps this is cultural (are we too uptight?). But the royal family, because they largely can only ever use soft, cultural and symbolic diplomacy, are a lot more used to dance diplomacy (sometimes quite hilariously). Here’s Prince Charles at the Rio Carnival (there are plenty of videos of Charles dancing):