First lady's inaugural dance partner was a Madera Marine

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Madera native Elidio Guillen is a squared-away Marine sergeant who knew just how to comport himself while dancing with first lady Michelle Obama.

He would dance part of one song only. He would make polite small talk. And he would not, repeat not, tromp the feet of the wife of his new commander in chief.

"I was thinking, 'Don't step on her toes, don't step on her toes,'" Guillen said Thursday morning. "And then, when I saw her dress, I was thinking, 'Don't step on that dress, don't step on that dress.'"

Mission accomplished, and then some.

A 27-year-old Madera High School graduate. Guillen learned the meaning of the word "spotlight" Tuesday night at the Commander-in-Chief's Ball held following Barack Obama's presidential swearing-in. For 30 or 40 seconds -- in other words, an eternity -- Guillen danced slowly and surely with the first lady just as he had practiced with his wife.

Guillen was markedly shorter than his dance partner, who is nearly 5 feet 11 inches tall. He was in his dress blue uniform. She was dressed in a floor-length, one-shouldered gown adorned with beads and fabric pedals.

Nonetheless, the Iraq war veteran and graduate of Madera's George Washington Elementary School and Thomas Jefferson Middle School found common footing with the Iraq war opponent, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School.

"She asked me where I was from, and I told her," Guillen said. "She asked me if I was nervous, and she told me to relax, go with the flow."

They danced.

Guillen wished Obama a belated happy birthday; she turned 45 on Jan. 17.

They danced.

The recorded song was the Etta James classic "At Last." Beyonce had serenaded the first couple with her faithfully rendered version of the song at another inaugural ball Tuesday night, but the Commander-in-Chief's Ball relied on Etta's version, pure old school.

They danced. And then, they were done.

"She thanked me for my service," Guillen said, "and I thanked her for the dance."

Michelle Obama returned to her husband, the president of the United States, and Guillen returned to his wife, Adela, a fellow Madera High School graduate. The Obamas had other inaugural balls to go to, but the Guillens stayed behind with the other 2,000 or so ball participants at the decked-out National Building Museum. Their 15-month-old daughter Alysa was safely with a babysitter, so they could sample the shrimp and salmon satay and party; a bit more raucously, perhaps, to a retro-'70s funk band called Right On.

"It was something our family will treasure all our lives," Guillen said. "My family has played a small part in history, at the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president."

But Guillen's adventure did not end with the conclusion of the Commander-in-Chief's Ball. He and Army Sgt. Margaret Herrera, who had tearfully danced with the president, have since been interviewed on CNN, on Inside Edition, on Univision, on local television.

He has also been bombarded with messages from Madera-area friends and, well, taken some ribbing from his fellow Marines. By Thursday morning, Guillen allowed that some of the questions were starting to sound pretty much the same. He was also sparing with some of his answers.

Guillen works in the Defense Department's Office of General Counsel; specifically, in the Office of Military Commissions. This is the office that oversees the controversial military commission trials for accused enemy combatants currently held in Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration has secured a 120-day postponement in commission proceedings while officials figure out how they want to proceed. One option is to do away with the current commissions, established during the Bush administration.

Guillen is a paralegal and litigation support specialist, exactly what he joined the Marines for following his Madera High School graduation. He has served in North Carolina, Okinawa and with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing while deployed for seven months to Al Asad, Iraq. He plans to make a career of the Marines.

"I had started watching the show 'JAG,'" Guillen said, "and when I went to the recruiter, I told him that was what I was interested in."

The dancing part, he couldn't predict.

Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, had started what now appears to be the dancing-with-the-troops tradition in their January 2005 inaugural. Military planners working on Obama's inauguration thought it merited repeating.

"It was a fairly short-fused process coordinated among (our) public affairs and ceremonies directorates and the Presidential Inaugural Committee," said Navy Lt. Mike Billips, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee. "We didn't conduct a casting call or formal auditions or anything like that."

Guillen said he "was nominated by my command" for the inaugural dance duty. Billips elaborated that Guillen's commanders identified him as a worthy candidate, and his name was then selected in a lottery.

"And Sergeant Guillen said, 'Roger that,'" Billips said.

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