WASHINGTON -- The official Inaugural Ball served up a mixture of high and low culture Monday night: There was the first lady decked out in a custom Jason Wu ruby-colored chiffon-and-velvet gown. And there were the food tables, laden with oversized bowls of pretzels, salted nuts and bright orange Cheez-Its.
The night felt a bit like a senior prom on steroids: Oversized colored globes and bunting were hung from the massive ducts lining the ceiling of the cavernous convention hall. Performances by high-wattage stars such as Alicia Keys and Brad Paisley were interspersed with Michael Jackson and Madonna hits spun by a DJ.
"I guess I expected a little bit more," said Shirley Hill, a 58-year-old program manager at the Agriculture Department, as she gazed around the vast space. "I don't know, with the economy, I guess this is reasonable."
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"It’s just such a happy occasion," interjected her friend, Ramona Green, also 58, who works as a health systems specialist at the Veterans Administration. "We're just happy to be here."
This was billed as a party open to all Americans, with enough room for 40,000 and tickets at $60 a person. (Higher-priced packages got attendees access to a separate section of the ball, held upstairs for top donors and staff.) The ball spilled across five halls of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the same amount of space devoted to six separate inaugural celebrations in 2009.
Any discontent in the crowd appeared to melt away during the six minutes President Obama and his wife, Michelle, took the stage, dancing cheek to cheek as Jennifer Hudson serenaded them with her rendition of Al Green's "Let’s Stay Together."
A sea of smartphones followed their every move, and ball-goers joined the first lady as she sang along with the refrain, "Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad." Whoops rose up as the couple snuggled close.
"It was very emotional, just to see a man love his wife so much," said Latonia Taylor, a 41-year-old life coach and consultant from Laurel, Md. "I'm just so happy the first family shows so much love for one another."
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But after the dance, she headed for the exit.
"I'm over it," Taylor said. "I thought we might have some seating options. I don't like being fed Cheez-Its. I'm a little insulted. But I took one for the team, that's the way I see it. I have a story I can tell my kids."
For many others, the ball was a way to take part in the import of the day.
"I just wanted to be part of history," said an excited Patrick Fonzo, a 29-year-old Washington resident who works in government consulting. "It’s phenomenal. The people are beautiful, and it's a wonderful way to celebrate our president."
Many attendees were at their first inaugural ball -- including Scott and Jean Fleischer, who drove down from Philadelphia on Monday.
"We figured, how many times are we going to come to one?" said Scott Fleischer, a 60-year-old psychiatrist. "We want to see Obama."
"The only thing I would say that I'm little worried about is that the food is just pretzels," he added.
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"That's OK, we can get dinner any night," said Jean Fleischer, 54, who works as a manager at a hospital. "We’re just thrilled to be here."
The menu was more extensive at the Commander-in-Chief's Ball, a separate event for military families, where attendees were served a buffet that included penne with red sauce, tortellini alfredo, dinner rolls, grapes and dried fruit. That was the first stop of the night for the Obamas.
"Today, we experienced the majesty of our democracy; a ritual only possible in a form of government that is of, and by, and for the people; a day made possible because there are patriots like each and every one of you who defend our freedom every single day," the president told the military crowd. "So this little party is just another way to say something we can never say enough: Thank you."
Unlike the 2009 inauguration, when the first couple stopped at 10 official balls, they visited just the two Monday night. By 10:30 p.m., they were back at the White House.
[For the Record, 9:29 a.m. PST Jan. 22: This post has been updated to reflect that Alicia Keys, not Beyonce, performed during the ball.]