Barack Obama Borrows a Line from Fred Astaire

January 20, 2009

Have you ever seen the part in Swingtime where Fred Astaire fakes being a beginner so he can hit on dance teacher Ginger Rogers? He “clumsily” falls down, and shows her how to get over it, saying, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over a gain.”  That becomes a funny song they do in this wonderful 1936 movie (music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields).


Well yesterday in Obama’s inspiring inauguration speech, he riffed on that lyric, saying “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Not everyone will get the reference to Swingtime, but his meaning is clear, and it’s something that everyone who’s taken a dance class knows: It’s better to take a chance and fall than to worry about falling.


President Obama is no stranger to dance. His wife Michelle took classes in her youth, and their daughters studied ballet at Homer Bryant’s school in Chicago. (I wonder where they will study in DC.) Also, his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, studied ballet seriously in Evanston with Kerry Hubata, our “Teacher’s Wisdom” of July, 2008. A while back there was a video going around that revealed how much Obama appreciates Emmanuel’s dance background. He said in a toast to (or rather a “roast” of) Emmanuel that ballet training was good preparation for becoming a politician. He went on to make a joke that only someone comfortable with dance could make. Emmanuel, Obama said, “was the first to choreograph a ballet version of Machiavelli’s The Prince.” Ohhhh I’d love to see such a ballet!


On a more serious note, dance was very much part of Senator Obama’s National Arts Policy during his campaign, (as I mention in my “Curtain Up” column  in the January issue). You can find the policy statement through google and see how serious he is about arts education.


So, what do Fred and Ginger do after they’ve fallen a few times and started all over again? They perform a delightful, totally in sync, dance of clear rhythms and swirling couple patterns—slightly more elaborate than Barack and Michelle’s dancing at the 10 balls last night (OK, way more elaborate). But I think the “Start All Over” again lyric captures the energy Obama possesses to pick up the pieces (left by the Bush regime, one might say), and the energy he has given us to restart whatever needs to be restarted.