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John Travolta shares the real story behind his 'storybook moment' dancing with Princess Diana

The "Saturday Night Fever" star said the moment felt like it was straight out of a storybook.
/ Source: TODAY

John Travolta is opening up about the story behind the famous photo of him dancing with Princess Diana at the White House on Nov. 9, 1985.

In an exclusive clip shared with People from the new PBS special “In Their Own Words: Diana, Princess of Wales,” the 67-year-old actor looked back on the moment and shared how it came to be thanks to a little meddling from former first lady, Nancy Reagan.

“I got a call from the White House to invite me to meet the British royal family with other celebrities, so I went with a very humble attitude that I was an extra in a room of very important people,” Travolta explained in a sit-down clip.

At the time of the event, Diana and Prince Charles had been married for four years and had just welcomed their second child together, Prince Harry, the year prior. Their visit to the White House also marked the couple’s first joint visit to the United States.

Diana, Princess of Wales dances with actor John Travolta during a White House Gala Dinner November 9, 1985 in Washington, DC.
Diana, Princess of Wales dances with actor John Travolta during a White House Gala Dinner Nov. 9, 1985 in Washington, DC.Alamy Stock Photo

In a clip taken at the 1985 event, Travolta was asked by a reporter if he would like to dance with Diana that night, to which he smiled and simply replied, “If she’d like me to.”

“About 10 o’clock at night, Nancy Reagan tapped on my shoulder and said, ‘The princess, her fantasy is to dance with you. Would you dance with her tonight?’” Travolta recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, of course. How does this work?’ And she said, ‘Well, at about midnight I’ll come and get you and then I’ll lead you over to her and then you ask her to dance.’”

The “Pulp Fiction” star said that his heart began to race before he even tapped Diana on the shoulder, describing her signature “bashful dip” when she turned around to look at him.

“She looked up and me and I said, ‘Would you care to dance with me?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’” he said. “I took her and the whole room cleared. We danced for what felt like 15 minutes.”

"She loved dancing and she brought pure joy to everyone else by doing this... for her to step out of people's expectations," Debbie Frank, a close of friend of Diana's, explained in another sit-down interview featured in the PBS special. "She just had that capacity to think outside of the box and act on it."

The moment was captured on camera by former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza in a series of photos that have stood the test of time, nearly four decades later. Travolta looked handsome in his crisp black suit while Diana donned the famous midnight blue Victor Edelstein evening gown accessorized with a sapphire, diamond and pearl choker necklace and matching earrings.

Travolta described his dance with the princess as a “storybook moment,” adding, “We bowed when it was over and she was off, and I was off, and my carriage turned into a pumpkin."

The "Grease" star has looked back on this moment fondly over the years, remembering it as a “magical moment” during an interview with Esquire Mexico back in April. He knew the opportunity was a “great privilege and honor,” but asking Diana to dance was no simple task.

“This meant guiding the dance well and trying to have fun,” he said. “That was the easy part, but introducing myself to Diana in the proper way, conveying confidence and asking her to be my dance partner was a complicated mission.”

Travolta began to set the scene of the evening, explaining, “Think of the moment. We are in the White House. It's midnight. The whole scene is like a dream.”

“I go up to her, touch her on the shoulder, ask her to dance,” he added. “She turns around and when she sees me, she displays that captivating smile, somewhat sad, and accepts my invitation.”

The actor continued, “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.”

"In Their Own Words: Diana, Princess of Wales" premieres Sunday, Aug. 8 at 8:00 p.m. EST on PBS.