The fascinating true story behind Princess Diana and John Travolta's infamous dance

24 November 2020, 15:51 | Updated: 24 November 2020, 21:58

It was later revealed that while Diana's dance with Travolta is now lauded as one of the most famous of all time, it almost didn't happen: The Princess, it seemed, had her eye on someone else for the iconic spin across the dancefloor.
It was later revealed that while Diana's dance with Travolta is now seen as one of the most famous of all time, it almost didn't happen: The Princess, it seemed, had her eye on someone else for the iconic spin across the White House's dancefloor. Picture: PA

Dancing with Saturday Night Fever's John Travolta at the White House has become one of Princess Diana's most iconic moments, yet few people know she actually had her eye on someone to be her dance partner that night.

A 24-year-old Princess Diana being twirled around a dance floor by Hollywood heartthrob John Travolta is an image that's become more famous than some of the Grease star's most well-known films.

The iconic moment occurred when Diana and Prince Charles were on their official trip to the United States in November 1985 and were invited by the then President, Ronald Reagan, as guests to a gala dinner at the White House.

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There the Prince and Princess rubbed shoulders with the cream of Hollywood royalty including Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck and of course the man-of-the-moment, Saturday Night Fever star, John Travolta.

The iconic moment occurred when Diana and Prince Charles were on their official trip to the United States in November 1985 and were invited by the then President, Ronald Reagan, as guests to a gala dinner at the White House.
The iconic moment occurred when Diana and Prince Charles were on their official trip to the United States in November 1985 and were invited by the then President, Ronald Reagan, as guests to a gala dinner at the White House. Picture: PA
Princess Diana danced with Ronald Reagan at the November 9, 1985 gala dinner. Pictured (left) with Nancy Reagan and (right) dancing with President Reagan.
Princess Diana danced with Ronald Reagan at the November 9, 1985 gala dinner. Pictured (left) with Nancy Reagan and (right) dancing with President Reagan. Picture: PA

However, it was later revealed that whilst Diana's dance with Travolta is now lauded as one of the most famous of all time, it almost didn't happen: The Princess, it seemed, had her eye on someone else for the iconic spin across the dancefloor.

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When Nancy Reagan famously approached John Travolta to tell the flattered actor the Princess of Wales wanted to dance with him, it wasn't actually the whole story.

What the future Pulp Fiction star didn't know was that the whole thing was orchestrated by the Reagans for a press opportunity, and that Diana was hoping someone else was going to ask her to dance that night.

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Diana's former butler, Paul Burrell, wrote in his book The Way We Were: Remembering Diana, that the princess had arrived at the gala wishing to dance with the famous Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

"Nancy and [Ronald] Reagan set up the press to take a picture of her dancing with John Travolta," Paul Burrell later revealed. Pictured, Diana and Charles arriving at the 1985 gala dinner, accompanied by the Reagans.
"Nancy and [Ronald] Reagan set up the press to take a picture of her dancing with John Travolta," Paul Burrell later revealed. Pictured, Diana and Charles arriving at the 1985 gala dinner, accompanied by the Reagans. Picture: PA
“I put my hand in the middle of her back, brought her hand down so that it wouldn’t be so high and gave her the confidence that we would do just fine," John Travolta later said.
Nancy Reagan famously approached John Travolta to tell the flattered actor the Princess of Wales wanted to dance with him. Picture: PA
The iconic moment occurred when Diana and Prince Charles were on their official trip to the United States in November 1985 and were invited by the then President, Ronald Reagan, as guests to a gala dinner at the White House.
“I put my hand in the middle of her back, brought her hand down so that it wouldn’t be so high and gave her the confidence that we would do just fine," John Travolta later said. Picture: Getty

“Diana really wanted to share the floor with one of the world’s greatest ballet dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov," says Burrell.

"[But] Nancy and [Ronald] Reagan set up the press to take a picture of her dancing with John Travolta."

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Despite having her hopes pinned on another partner this didn't stop the dance with Travolta being a special moment for the princess; with John Travolta later confirming he later discovered it was one of her highlights of her North American tour.

Speaking to a Dutch TV station in 2007, he said: "At midnight, I had to tap her on her shoulder and say, “Would you care to dance.” She turned around and dipped her head in that Lady Diana way and we were off for 15 minutes dancing."

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Yet just moments before she took to the dancefloor, Travolta recalls the princess was suddenly struck by a bout of nerves.

“I put my hand in the middle of her back, brought her hand down so that it wouldn’t be so high and gave her the confidence that we would do just fine.

Diana danced to some of Travolta's biggest hits from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and ‘You’re The One That I Want’ from Grease, before Hollywood star, Tom Selleck, cut in for a waltz with the princess.
Diana danced to some of Travolta's biggest hits from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and ‘You’re The One That I Want’ from Grease, before Hollywood star, Tom Selleck, cut in for a waltz with the princess. Picture: PA
“At least I wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as Clint Eastwood,” Tom Selleck later said. “He went next and was really out of his safety zone!”
“At least I wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as Clint Eastwood,” Tom Selleck later said. “He went next and was really out of his safety zone!”. Picture: PA

“I was awestruck with her,” he admitted in 2019, “She led the way, and I thought: ‘Well, that’s not going to happen! I’ve got to go back to my school days of learning ballroom dancing and show that I can lead her.’”

The pair danced to some of Travolta's biggest hits from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and ‘You’re The One That I Want’ from Grease, before another Hollywood star, Tom Selleck, cut in for a waltz with Diana.

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While Selleck later revealed he was very nervous and couldn't think of what to say to the 24-year-old princess, he admitted it went better than her dance with Clint Eastwood who was next in line for a spin with the most famous woman in the world.

“At least I wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as Clint Eastwood,” the Friends actor told Piers Morgan. “He went next and was really out of his safety zone!”

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People magazine reported that the conversation with Eastwood was very uncomfortable, with the star saying to the princess, “You’re too old for me” to which Diana protested, “But I’m only 24!”

The dance between John Travolta and Princess Diana had a profound effect on the Hollywood star, and years later he said it was of the favourite moments of his life.

“Diana really wanted to share the floor with one of the world’s greatest ballet dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov (pictured in 1988)," recalls Paul Burrell.
“Diana really wanted to share the floor with one of the world’s greatest ballet dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov (pictured in 1988)," recalls Paul Burrell. Picture: PA

“She was charming, adorable, and down to earth," recalled the star in an interview with Good Morning America in 2016.

When asked if there was any part of the 1980s that he could bring back, Travolta said it would be that famous moment at the White House when he danced with royalty.

“Yes, I danced with Princess Diana,” he explained. “That was one of the highlights of my life, so that’s probably the best moment of the eighties.

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“I know for a fact that it was a highlight of being in the United States; it was her favourite moment," he added.

"So I feel I made her life better; she made my life better; and I’m very sorry that she’s not here.”