While it has been noted with some scornful glee (from the macho opposition), or bemusement (from the betcha didn’t know department) by newscasters and columnists, I met the news that President-elect Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once trained as a ballet dancer with much delight and interest. Could this be the highest ranking White House official with a serious dance background?
Interestingly enough, Emanuel’s wikipedia entry does not currently mention this fact, and most other internet sources mention it in passing, without any context. Like this article, that thought it important enough to put in the headline but gives no further information. Others make an attempt at deep analysis. A 2005 Rolling Stone article addressed the issue thusly:
When Rahm was a boy, his mother forced him to take ballet lessons, and he threw himself into it with the same intensity he would later bring to politics, winning a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet. Friends jokingly theorize that his toughness is actually an outgrowth of being a ballet dancer: With that sort of thing on your resume, you had better be ready to fight if you hope to survive in Chicago politics. “The guy had been a ballet dancer in college,” says Bruce Reed, “yet grown men lived in mortal fear of what he might do to them if they couldn’t get the answer he wanted.”
Can fear of being made fun of for being a male ballet dancer explain Emanuel’s mythically-proportioned temper? The nickname “Rahmbo”? I haven’t seen any widespread reports of former male ballet dancers with ego and anger control issues. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, or maybe there just haven’t been that many in Chicago politics.
Here’s another theory– that the study of ballet actually made him into an angry person (hmmm…). According to a blog posting dedicated to the subject:
“I’ve known Rahm for twenty years, he’s a friend, and I’ll be the first to admit that he’s an insufferable jerk, a Grade A a-hole, a complete prick,” said a former Clinton staffer. “But when you realize the years of endless repetition in some of Chicago’s toughest dance studios and the superhuman precision required to execute a series of moves en pointe you start to see where it comes from. There’s a lot of pent up rage that ballet gives no outlet for. You can’t even hit on the girls in the troupe as no one believes you’re not gay, no matter how many adjustments you need to make to your tights.”
Wow… pent up rage and fear of being thought you’re gay. Let’s not make this too complicated. I always thought dance was a good outlet for strong emotion, not something that causes you to bottle them up.
I’m going to go with another theory– that there’s room for all sorts of men in dance– girly men, manly men, white men, black men, purple men, and little green men. Even men with political aspirations, for crying out loud! That Emanuel’s ballet background is an issue for many– as evidenced in the number of amused-in-tone mentions by reporters and pundits– just goes to show how entrenched attitudes are about what a “normal” pasttime for a young male is. You don’t see headlines about “fishing enthusiast George W. Bush,” for example.
Those of us who dance know how much discipline and hard is required to be successful. It also helps to have a thick skin. All these character traits go a long way in politics. Judging from some of the stories, a love of drama and performance also seem to be inherent in Emanuel’s personality. The same things that probably helped him succeed in dance– even being offered a scholarship to the Joffrey– are the same sort of character traits that have carried him far in public service. It’s not a matter of cause and effect, as so many people seem to want it to be; it’s merely a matter of a core work ethic and perseverence being an asset in some of the more difficult and high-profile professions such as dance and politics.
I’m less interested in analyzing his character based on this detail from his past, and more interested in whether he still has a love for dance. Does he ever go to class? Is he a patron of the arts? Should I be keeping an eye out for him when I go see the ballet at the Kennedy Center? Either way, the dancer in me is tickled that we do have a high ranking [former] ballet dancer in the White House. While that part of Rahm Emanuel’s personal history will have no bearing on the implementation of the Obama policy agenda, we dancers know that we have one of our own in there.