By Dion Nissenbaum, Margaret Talev – McClatchey Newspapers (MCT)
One of the biggest questions facing President Barack Obama since the Democrats’ Election Day shellacking was whether he’d still have that “Yes We Can” charisma that energized people around the world. Apparently, in India, the answer is yes.
On Sunday, Obama won accolades among Indians for at least trying out his moves with folk dance performers at a Mumbai high school, though it was First Lady Michelle Obama that did most of the charming by sticking with the dance until the song was over. The president lasted only about 20 seconds, but the clip of Barack and Michelle Obama’s dancing dominated India’s airwaves, replayed over and over again, to the seeming delight of Indian viewers.
“When he was discussing the economy, the terrorism, Pakistan, he was talking as a president,” said Shikha Tejpal, 23, a guest relations executive at the ITC Maurya hotel where the president and his wife are staying while in New Delhi. “But Mr. Obama, when he was dancing, he was a human being.”
Like most reviewers, Tejpal gave the first lady higher scores than the president.
“Michelle is a better dancer,” she said. But the president, she gushed, “danced from the heart, so never mind.”
Whether in the long run such moments will have much sway on the success of the president’s three-day visit here can’t yet be known. But the immediate impact was clear: India was captivated. Commentators tried to divine its greater meaning for U.S-India relations, while television reporters sought out dance reviews from choreographers and produced retrospectives on the first lady’s previous public dancing. One station called it the “Obama Indian Tango.” When Obama’s three-day visit to India is said and done, “people are going to remember the dance,” Tejpal said. Even curmudgeonly commentators admitted they were charmed.
“Michelle’s got the moves,” said India’s Headlines Today, a cable news channel.
“Michelle Obama: Is she proving to be a star in her own right?” CNN-IBN commentators asked as part of their debate.
Almost as soon as the Obamas arrived in Mumbai on Saturday, Michelle Obama was winning compliments for her moves while dancing with disadvantaged children to a popular Bollywood tune. On Sunday, when the first couple stopped by Mumbai’s Holy Name High School to help celebrate Diwali, India’s festival of lights, students performing the Koli dance easily lured Michelle Obama onto the floor. Then the boys sought to entice the president to join in. At first Obama resisted, then joined with moves that could be described as stilted, before he abandoned the effort and mingled with the kids. Michelle, however, kept on until the end of the tune.
Presidential dancing is always fraught with risk. It can define a president as much as any other action in their tenure. In 2000, President Bill Clinton used his own dance moves in a tiny Indian village to charm the nation as the first American president to visit India in more than two decades. In the waning years of his two-term presidency, President George W. Bush was widely ridiculed by late night comedians for his exaggerated dancing with African drummers at a 2007 Malaria Awareness Day event on the White House lawn. The late Russian President Boris Yeltsin is probably remembered as much for his unrestrained dance moves as for his speech from the top of a tank that helped thwart a 1991 coup.
On the eve of the presidential visit, some Indian analysts were wondering if Obama still had the charms.
“Obama has still to prove to Indians that he is swoon-worthy,” Indian newspaper columnist Santosh Desai told The Washington Post last week.
But on Sunday, that concern seemed to have vanished.
Tejpal said she was home with her mom when she first saw footage of the president dancing.
“I was like, ‘Mom! The biggest man on the earth is dancing. I can’t believe that!'” she said. “When I came to work my colleagues were saying, ‘He’s so down to earth, he’s so humble.'”