December 23, 1985 12:00 PM

Whether she was dancing in Australia, dancing in Palm Beach or dancing in Washington, D.C., she looked just like a princess—an elegant swirl of taffeta, velvet and silk, set off dazzlingly by a choker of pearls and sapphires, low-cut necklines and always bows, at the waist, at the hip, at the bodice. “Beautiful,” the guests in Australia, Palm Beach and Washington whispered to each other. Most of them looked pretty good too, but she embodied dreams, and nothing real is a match for dreams. Her mere appearance at the White House gala made it the most glamorous night of the year, a night on which the capital’s most riveting question was: Whom would she dance with?

Unknown to the guests that night, four special people had been invited—Tom Selleck, Neil Diamond, Clint Eastwood and John Travolta—and a plan had been hatched. As the throng sipped champagne and nibbled caviar near the receiving line in the private quarters, the First Lady, bedecked in the beaded Galanos she had worn to the second Inaugural Ball, sidled up to John Travolta, who had been sent an invitation for only one and didn’t know why. “She asked me if I would mind dancing with the Princess later in the evening,” recalls the man whose moves had been the measure of every with-it male in the land until break-dancing hit. “I asked if that was appropriate, and Mrs. Reagan smiled and said, ‘Oh yes. It’s one of her wishes. When the music from your movie comes up, if you wouldn’t mind just asking her if she’d care to dance.’ ” Ask her if she’d care to dance? And suppose, just suppose, there had been a mix-up, and she opened those great blue eyes, smiled and said, “Get lost”? Would we, then, be at war with England?

In the State Dining Room, Travolta nervously contemplated his mission over lobster mousseline with Maryland crab and glazed chicken with peppers. “After all,” he said later, “she was the most beautiful woman in the room.” He saw her chatting animatedly with her dinner partners, the President and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And like him, the other 78 guests—among them Jacques Cousteau, I.M. Pel, Dorothy Hamill, Daniel Boorstin, Gloria Vanderbilt, William F. Buckley Jr., Larry McMurtry, Betsy Bloomingdale and Leontyne Price—watched her, discreetly and otherwise. After listening to Price sing Summertime in the East Room, everyone went into the marbled Grand Foyer, and the Marine dance band began playing.

The President had the first dance. As they made their way sedately across the floor, the First Lady suddenly appeared at Travolta’s side. “It’s time, John,” she said.

As though on cue, the band struck up the Saturday Night Fever hit You Should Be Dancing, and after the President thanked her, Travolta approached. Then he proffered the invitation that has been made, in much the same words, by sweaty, pimply, white-gloved swains in dancing schools, by lecherous, boozy frat boys intent on stealing a brother’s date, by outwardly suave but inwardly dying hipsters in blaring, glaring discos, and other apprehensive dreamers down through the ages:

“Would you care to dance?”

There is no way to know how long the answer actually was in coming. Almost certainly, it seemed longer.

“I’d absolutely love to,” she said, with a lovely, sexy smile.

“Is partner-dancing appropriate?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” she answered.

And then?

“Then I told her my theory of jet lag,” Travolta says. “Which is to exercise as soon as you get off the plane and sleep as long as the flight was.”

Well, they weren’t there for conversation. Everybody had stopped dancing and was watching them, even the President. So they danced like crazy. “She got wind that it was a special moment, and she really seemed to take off,” Travolta says. “She has great rhythm. We did spins and turns. We did a kind of modern fox-trot and she followed me very well.” Delighted, she stayed for another dance to Disco Inferno. “Maybe someday we’ll get to do this in a less-watched situation,” he said near the end. “That would be great,” she said. Then, as everybody applauded, he thanked her.

And then she danced with other men—in-step-step, out-step-step, smiling. She danced with Tom Selleck. “She was wonderful,” he says. “But I danced with her right after Travolta so I spent most of the time apologizing.” She danced with Neil Diamond. “She is incredibly beautiful,” he said. She danced with Clint Eastwood. “You’re too old for me,” he told her. “But I’m only 24!” she protested.

Then it was over. After midnight she departed, leaving guests staring after her. “She seemed freed up for the first moment in months,” Travolta said of their fox-trot. “She was happy to be out there dancing.”

Of course, there were memories.

“The greatest moment,” Travolta recalled, “was when I put my hand around her waist.” Ahh.

Of his whirl with her, Eastwood, as ever sly, said, “She made my day.” Ahh.

As for the Princess, she wasn’t over her dance yet, the First Lady wrote Travolta, thanking him for making the evening special. Ahh.

And Prince Charles—how did he dance? “Charles was all feet,” said Mrs. Vincent Astor.

Yes, perfect. He is no competition. She awaits us all on the dance floor.

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