I’ve recently looked at dance as a duty of office (both domestically and for diplomacy) but there are also lots of instances where politicians dance in planned, organised settings where they clearly do not need to, for example dancing on television shows. To help understand why they do this I turned to a 2009 research paper on why British and Dutch politicians chose to go on Have I got News for You and its Dutch adaptation, Dit was het Nieuws.
The motives of the politicians who participated in these programmes drew from three distinct but overlapping repertoires: a strategic repertoire, an indulgent repertoire and an anti-elitist repertoire. This post will look at the first of these which boils down tot being seen (positively or negatively) in order “to increase one’s political effectiveness.”
Ann Widdecombe appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2010 and although she had stood down as a Member of Parliament at the general election earlier that year one can still consider her as a politician. A Telegraph profile of her appearance on the show speculated that she was driven by this motive of self-publicity:
“Since retiring from politics this summer after 23 years, Widdecombe has lost her public platform and the exhibitionist streak in her responds to Strictly’s nine million viewers like a desert flower to rain. “I like a certain amount of drama,” she concedes. “I broke the mould of the Conservative Party conference when I was shadow health secretary by abandoning the ritual of standing in front of a microphone reading an autocue. I walked up and down the aisles like a fiery evangelical preacher. I wanted to make it less tedious.”
The 2009 report found that some politicians decide to go on to Have I got News for You or Dit was het Nieuws “to put political messages across in popular contexts” but “Both the necessity and the possibility of such endeavours were contested.” Clearly this is near impossible in a dance context. As one Dutch MP in the study is quoted as saying:
“I wouldn’t participate in Dancing on Ice, for two reasons: I can’t get a political message across and I can’t skate at all. I don’t want to expose myself to such physical things and I think most of the politicians should not come in their bathing suit either”
And conversely for Widdecombe, the political ineffectiveness appears to have been an attraction:
“Everything I did in politics affected somebody. This isn’t going to affect a soul. I can do no harm at all. If I end up in a heap, there are no constituents to let down.”
A less obvious example of the strategic repertoire might be this 1998 photograph of then U.S. president Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary dancing on holiday in the U.S. Virgin Islands, described by Bob Pearson, Agence France-Presse’s chief of photography for the Americas, as “a very, very touching photograph of a moment between the first lady and the president”.
The photograph was one of a series taken by photographers hiding in bushes and was considered a breach of privacy by White House staff but since they came out in the middle of a sexual harassment lawsuit that state employee Paula Jones brought against Bill Clinton, some felt they may have been staged.
Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation journalism fellowships at Harvard University “wondered about whether the Clintons, as they were dancing, really believed they were alone…adding that the first couple is savvy enough to have suspected that lenses were pointed their way. ‘I have difficulty believing that we have, in that photograph, been witness to something deep and meaningful in the relationship between the president and the first lady.’
So it may be that the photographs were contrived or allowed, for Clinton to be seen – through his dancing wife his wife – in a particular way i.e. as a loving husband.
The Clintons gave another public display of intimacy through dancing when celebrating the beginning of the year during the ceremony to lower the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 2008 in New York City. By this time Barak Obama was president and Hillary was now Secretary of State but the moves looked the same: