When do politicians dance part 5: Anti-elitism

ellen3.jpgIn the last two posts I have been using 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 to help understand why politicians dance publicly when their job doesn’t obviously require it.

The motives of the politicians who participated in the comedy programmes drew from three repertoires: strategic, indulgent and anti-elitist. This final post will look at anti-elitism:

In this repertoire, parliamentary politics and the media responsible for covering it are presented as institutions crowded by elites possessing their own language, style and in-groups which are more or less alienated from their constituencies and the public at large. The politicians drawing from this repertoire see it as their responsibility to perform differently and show that politicians are also ordinary human beings, with their ups and downs, their flaws and imperfections.

As Hugo Rifkind put it in The Spectator:

How are you supposed to convince an electorate that you’re on the same planet as they are when you’re so glaringly the dork at the disco? British politics has a long-running problem in this regard, and Conservative politics most of all.(…) Really, it’s about more than politics. It’s about the alienation of power; the remove of the boss class. Remember all that horrible Blairite posturing? Why didn’t it stick? Why aren’t the people in charge anything like the people who aren’t yet?

Dancing is perfect for humanising politicians, whether it makes them appear cool (rare), normal or able to laugh at their own ineptitude.

Cool politicians

Cool is hardest to pull off, because cool is by definition anti-establishment and the swagger of the cool body is developed in opposition to the formal disposition of the (white) politician’s body. Which is why so much of the dance diplomacy looks ridiculous.

But because he is relatively young and because he is mixed race, Barack Obama benefits from historically-rooted preconceptions of black people being cooler than white people. So when, as a presidential candidate, he appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2009 he just about got away with dancing (which is “customary for guests on the show”), with DeGeneres telling him”You’re the best dancer so far of the presidential candidates”.

In actual fact Obama’s moves were pretty simple; his wife Michelle said she was a better dancer when she was subsequently on Ellen and has elsewhere said “I give him a B” she said. “He’s got, like, three good moves.” And more recently he was reported as being out of time dancing with children in India. But this narrative of ‘Obama’s not that good at dancing’ might simply be a reflection of the media/public’s presumptions that he would be exceptional.

But the point is that he was competent and confident to chose to promote himself on the Ellen Degeneres Show and danced well enough to help his image. You can see that he also punched a speed bag as he came in (a way for guests on the show to raise funds for a charity), demonstrating his strength at the same time as his dancing ability. You can also see Obama dancing to Snoop, and at Fiesta Latina, where the host remarks “I’m more happy that I voted for him now”.

And here’s Chuka Umunna MP the “UK’s Barack Obama” trying to get his own dose of cool by dancing with Will Smith at a High School in south London. I’ll let you decide whether he pulls it off.

Being Normal

An example of a politician dancing to fit in with ‘ordinary people’ is this footage of Russian Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev dancing in his suit to ‘American Boy’ at a disco, at a university reunion in 2010. Now one could argue that he is just dancing with his friends and it’s not a political gesture. But he is the Prime Minister, it is a public event and he presumably had the option of enjoying the event without dancing, so I think it is fair to say this is at least a case of being happy for this image of him to be presented through his body (i.e. it wasn’t felt to be unbecoming). Whether it worked is another matter.

There is also plenty of coverage of then Russian president Boris Yeltsin dancing in public, for example at this rally, but it is hard to know what his motivation was since he appeared to have had serious mental and physical health problems and his erratic behaviour brought embarrassment to his country.

An interesting variant of dancing as a normalising act for politicians is the work of Finnish dance artist Pia Lindy. In 2001-11 she produced a work, About to dance, in which she asked people about their ideas, experiences and thoughts about life and dance. The only catch was that the answers are given by moving.

In 2007, Finnish Parliament members joined her project to answer her questions with movement and dance: ‘Which movement comes to your mind of the word life?’; ‘Which movement comes to your mind of the word dance?’; ‘Which movement would you like to teach to me?’ The resulting film by Sini Haapalinna, About to Dance, Swing of Politics, premiered at the Finnish Parliament in 2008.

For me this project is an intervention rather than a convention, but it is still a platform for politicians to communicate with Finnish people (via the art work) with their bodies in a very humanising way.

Self mockery

The third variant of anti-eltism is when politicians dance and sing to mock themselves. For example the Mayor of New York traditionally takes part in an annual show organised by the Inner Circle, a parody group established in 1922 by New York City newspaper reporters covering City Hall.

Mayor Bloomberg gets a lift from the ladies of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” while performing in his last Inner Circle Dinner, 2013. Source: Daily News

The show is written and performed by journalists and television and radio personalities and interestingly it serves a real political function: The first act focuses on lampooning the current New York City Mayor; the second “attacks” state and national politics; and the show is followed by a rebuttal by the current mayor of New York.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani with the Rockettes during a 2001 skit. Source: Daily News

The event is similar (but more showy and fun) to the White House Correspondents Dinner where in 2007 Karl Rove – President Geirge W Bush’s senior political adviser – performed a now infamous dance and rap, willingly making a fool of himself

Former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega commented that “Karl Rove has, for years, been choreographing an elaborate dance of death for the federal government designed to give life to the Republican Party” and this literal dance was all the more appalling because

“the members of our so-called independent Washington press corps [were] laughing amiably at the antics of a senior presidential aide whose conduct is so universally considered despicable”

I’ll never watch repeats of Whose Line Is It Anyway in he same way again after seeing Colin Mochrie’s ‘beatboxing.’

Popularity of anti-elitism

We have seen throughout these posts on dancing politicians, how often they have become Youtube sensations: the rarity or ridiculousness of such sights draw an attention and reach not often enjoyed by speeches or press releases.

When Romanian politician Edmond Talmacean was seen dancing on a television show in 2011, his political blog rose from 49th most viewed to seventh in just two weeks.  He claimed “Dancing is another kind of political message to appeal to the younger generation, that it is good to have fun… that you can go to a disco and dance,” Mr Talmacean said.

The confounding of political images seems to be popular with audiences of dancing television programmes too. According to the Daily Mail

Producers were keen to secure a political figure for Strictly Come Dancing after seeing the show enjoy its highest ratings for the two series which featured [political journalist John] Sergeant and [ex-government minister Ann] Widdecombe. They were both heavily criticised by the show’s judges, but proved a huge hit with the public thanks to their unorthodox performances.

Dance then is an extremely powerful resource in political communication.


Sometimes the anti-elitist effect of dancing is employed by someone else, manipulating real footage or creating new footage, to make politicians look foolish. For example this video using real footage of Cameron and Johnson, looped with new music (they were originally dancing to the Spice Girls) that is more incongruous, making them seem more ridiculous.

And Russia’s top satirical game show produced this spoof of President Dmitry Medvedev’s dancing although “when the programme was broadcast on Channel One, their performance had been edited out.”

And one video for Coldplay’s song Violet Hill juxtaposes images of politicians dancing (sometimes looped or sped up for comic effect) with ones of war, to hammer home its anti-war message, which Chris Martin explains

“…is our favorite video we’ve ever made. We just thought it was funny that in the run-up to elections, everybody dances. … And we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a video of just politicians dancing?” So we did.

See also
When do politicians dance part 1: All in a day’s work
When do politicians dance part 2: Dance Diplomacy
When do politicians dance part 3: To be seen
When do politicians dance part 4: When they feel like it


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