The fascinating true story behind Princess Diana and John Travolta's infamous dance
22 April 2021, 12:56
Her dance with Saturday Night Fever's John Travolta at the White House became one of Princess Diana's most iconic moments, yet few people know she actually had her eye on someone else to be her dance partner on that famous 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.
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.
“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.
“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.’”
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In an interview with Esquire Mexico in April 2021, John Travolta gave more detail on exactly how the dance came about.
"[Dancing] was the easy part, but introducing myself to Diana in the proper way, conveying assurance, and asking her to be my dance partner was a complicated mission," he said.
"The whole stage is like a dream. I go up to her, touch her on the shoulder, ask her to dance. She turns around and when she sees me she displays that captivating smile, somewhat sad, and accepts my invitation.
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"And there we were, dancing together like in a fairy tale. Who could imagine that something like this is going to happen to you one day? I was smart enough to register it in my memory as a very special, magical moment."
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!”
In an interview in 2007, John Travolta said the dance with Princess Diana 'saved' his career.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror he said: "That was an amazing moment because I was having a dip in my career and no one was interested in me.
"Suddenly, I was the only thing that mattered in America to Princess Diana. I was like 'Wow! I matter to someone again'."
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.
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“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.”