It’s a tale as old as time — or at least a modern-day pop-culture version of it. The graceful, good-hearted Princess Diana swirling around the dance floor with the king of silver-screen dancing John Travolta.
In fact, it started as any fairy-tale dance scene would: “At midnight, I had to tap her on her shoulder and I had to say, “Would you care to dance?’” Travolta said in a 2007 interview.
Thankfully Diana accepted the Hollywood actor’s invitation at the November 1985 White House party. He was dressed in a black suit. She was wearing a deep blue velvet Victor Edelstein gown — which last sold at auction for $311,000 in 2013 before going to Kerry Taylor Auctions in December 2019 — frosted with a sapphire and pearl choker. And together, their dance became one of the most memorable meetings of reigning Hollywood and British royalty.
Diana requested an invitation for Travolta
Princess Diana and Prince Charles had just arrived for their 1985 royal tour of the United States and President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan wanted to make sure they were welcomed in style on their first night.
They threw a party for 80 guests in the White House — inviting big names in every field including Tom Selleck, Gloria Vanderbilt, Estée Lauder, Mikhail Baryshnikov and opera singer Leontyne Price.
And a few of the invites came from Diana herself, including those for Travolta, Clint Eastwood and Neil Diamond. “I'm so nervous my stomach is all butterflies,” Diamond told the Washington Post. “I'd rather face an audience of 20,000.” (She had also requested Diana Ross, who was unable to attend.)
The all-star affair included intimate performances with Diamond singing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and Price performing “Summertime.”
But as the clock ticked toward midnight, the real highlight of the night was about to take place.
The first lady encouraged Travolta to ask Diana to dance
At the time, Diana, then 24, was four years into her marriage, having wed Charles in 1981, and Travolta, then 31, would marry Kelly Preston six years later in 1991.
But having received the personal invitation, Travolta knew he couldn’t miss out on the opportunity, especially after analyzing her dance skills.
“I’d seen her dance with Charles beforehand so I knew that she was strong. But she looked like she was leading [him],” he told the Telegraph.
But he still was unsure if it was the right move — until an unexpected person gave him a nudge.
“I didn’t know or expect that I was to dance with Lady Diana and it was the president’s wife, Nancy Reagan, that said, ‘It is her wish,’” he explained.
That was when he walked over and invited her with the tap. “She turned around and dipped her head in that Lady Diana way and we were off for 15 minutes dancing,” Travolta continued.
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Travolta felt like he was Diana's 'Prince Charming'
Travolta communicated right away that he’d take care of her on the dance floor. “I knew that the world was watching [so] I thought that I really needed to give her certainty that I knew what to do,” he told the Telegraph. “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.”
As their feet glided across the floor with the magic only the two of them from such different world could create, there was an unspoken bond. Travolta told the Telegraph perhaps it was both of their experiences in a “celebrity prison” and “two victims of it dancing together.”
Whether that was the case, the spark was there. “There really was something lovely and girlish about her and I felt that I had taken her back to her childhood, when she had probably watched Grease,” he said to the Telegraph. “For that moment I was her Prince Charming.”
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The actor said Diana 'made my life
Looking back on the day, Travolta can’t help but smile. “I’ll never forget it. I’m so honored that I was able to experience that, and I know for a fact that it was a highlight of being in the United States — it was her favorite moment,” he said. “So I feel I made her life better, she made my life better, and I’m very sorry that she’s not here.”
That night, Diana also paired up with other dance partners, including President Reagan, Eastwood and Selleck — but it was those with the actor who played Danny Zuko that became the most iconic.
“She was the real deal,” he said to the Telegraph. “And I think that was partly because she followed the rule that ‘It’s okay to be important as long as everyone else is equally important’.”
When asked if he would bring back anything from the 1980s in an ABC News interview, Travolta immediately went to the dance. “That was one of the highlights of my life.”