Inside the balls


President Barack Obama kisses first lady Michelle Obama as they dance at the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Published: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 12:42 a.m.

"At Last" may have been just what President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle were thinking Tuesday night as they glided through their first inaugural dance to the Etta James classic.

The Obamas were the star attraction at the Neighborhood Ball, the first of 10 inaugural celebrations they planned to attend, going into the early hours today. The celebrations marked the end of a long day of formal inaugural events and the two-year campaign that put them in the White House.

The president pulled his wife close and they danced a slow, dignified two-step while, offstage, Beyonce sang. The president spun first lady Michelle Obama once in a half-turn.

Obama cut loose in a faster groove a few minutes later, as Shakira, Mary J. Blige, Faith Hill and Mariah Carey sang along with Stevie Wonder to his "Sign, Sealed, Delivered." The song was played at nearly every one of Obama's rallies throughout the campaign.

"You could tell that's a black president from the way he was moving," comedian Jamie Foxx joked following the dance.

The president wore white tie, while Michelle shimmered in a white, one-shouldered, floor-length gown. It was embellished from top to bottom with white floral details and made by 26-year-old New York designer Jason Wu.

"First of all, how good looking is my wife?" Obama asked the crowd of celebrities and supporters alike.

At their second ball, the president pulled the first lady much closer than he did on their first dance. At one point, he wrapped both arms around her waist and locked his fingers together at the small of her back.

"I hope all of you will remember what this campaign and hopefully this presidency is all about," Obama said. "It's about you, pitching in, working together, trying to get past our differences in order to create the kind of world we want to pass on to our children and America."

At the Commander in Chief Ball, Vice President Joe Biden saluted the nation's military men and women and then said he wasn't looking forward to his moment in the spotlight - the dancing, that is.

"The thing that frightens me the most (is) I'm going to have to stand in that circle and dance in a minute." At that, he laughed and did a quick sign of the cross.

Director Ron Howard said he sympathized with the long day Obama was having.

"I feel bad for him," Howard said in an interview with The Associated Press at the Western Ball. "He's had a long day and now he has to do seven dances. This has got to be the grueling part for the first family."

Despite the formal attire and celebrity entertainment, balls aren't overly fancy affairs. Lines often are long to get in, go to the bathroom or check your coat, and the food is heavy on vegetables with dip and cheese cubes.

In a sign of the tough economic times, guests who already paid anywhere from $75 for a ticket to thousands more for a package deal had to buy their own drinks served in small plastic cups. Beer went for $6, cocktails for $9 and champagne for $12.

People waited in line for more than an hour at Union Station to get into the Eastern States Ball. Because of very limited seating at the Western ball, a number of attendees in long gowns and fancy dress plopped cross-legged on the floor.

"This is what happens in a down economy. No chairs, no highboys - it's the floor and plastic cups," commented ballgoer Brig Lawson, 38, of Las Vegas.

Most of the ladies wore black like their dates, but Patrick Landers stood out in his kilt at the Biden Home States Ball. The 33-year-old Washington attorney moved to the United States from Ireland in 1998.

"I'm here to celebrate this great day and the beginning of a transformation in the United States and the rest of the world in creating a more inclusive society," Landers said.

Not everyone was so thrilled to be attending a ball. Singer Sheryl Crow, doing a sound check for a performance later at the Midwestern Ball, said she was homesick.

"I have not seen my child in four days. I'm miserable," she told her band between songs.

The balls were also a work opportunity of sorts for Vikash Gupta, who took his girlfriend to the Western States Ball even though he's from the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va. He said it was the only ball with tickets left on Ticketmaster when he went to purchase them two weeks ago. He said he wanted to use the evening as a networking opportunity to promote his software applications company and was hoping to meet some members of Congress.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he, his wife and four daughters ranging in age from 12 to 20 had gotten ready for the inauguration and the ball at locker rooms in his Senate office building on Capitol Hill. He said they slept in his office last night and intend to do so again tonight because of the heavy traffic.

"It was like camping out without the elements," Casey said.

Members of the military and their families who were being celebrated at the Heroes Red White & Blue Ball, with performances by country artist Keni Thomas and Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary.

Though the ball's guests were plunging into the night's celebration, the reality that the country remains at war hung over the festivities.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminded the crowd that while attendees celebrated "dressed to the nines" there were more than 280,000 troops on duty "so we can enjoy this day."

Cody Miranda, a Marine Corps veteran, beamed with excitement over the evening's activities. He said he wrestled with post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism and landed several times in military prison after returning from Iraq.

"It's great to be here to know I'm here after how I was in the military. I was downfallen," he said, adding that he is now in school. He is expecting much from Obama.

"I want my friends out of Iraq," Miranda said.

Even though he was just half a day into his first administration, Obama already had a possible second term on his mind.

"We are going to need you not just today, not just tomorrow, but this year, for the next four years and who knows after that," he said.

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