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From the Great White Way to the White House

From NBC's Ali Weinberg
How do you get to the White House?

For DC-area dance students today, the answer is practice, practice, practice.

As part of a White House series aimed at stressing the importance of arts education, 20 high school-age dancers from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Joy of Motion Dance Center performed the closing number from the musical "Hairspray," in front of an audience including First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as the parents and teachers of the performers.

Later tonight, the group will perform in the East Room along with Broadway stars and new talent in a tribute to the Great White Way, as part of the "In Performance at the White House" series.

The students had spent the morning rehearsing the song, "Can't Stop The Beat," with famed choreographer Jerry Mitchell, one of the few in his craft to have three Broadway musicals running simultaneously (in fact, he's held this distinction twice, according to information provided by the White House).

Before the East Room event officially got under way, Mitchell led the dancers through the routine one last time, pausing over a particularly challenging few steps.

"Now do it again and smile," Mitchell said.

After the First Lady entered the room, the dancers took it from the top, hands and legs flying as purple lights bounced off of the hairspray coating each dancer's heads.

When the number reached its triumphant end, Mitchell praised the students but reserved some constructive criticism, telling the students to take it "from the Tracey dance" (named for the musical's lead character, Tracey Turnblad), at which point he gave more directions, some more technical than others.

During a sequence in which the dancers mimicked some iconic "Proud Mary" moves, Mitchell simply shouted, "And, Tina! Turner! Tina! Turner!" in time with the music.

The First Lady took to the stage after the performance ended, shaking her head and saying, "I'm tired!" much to the amusement of the audience.

"I'm just very excited. This is exactly what we envisioned happening when we started this music series," she said, adding that the event "showcases young talent mixed with some of the best talent this country has to offer."

Mitchell proudly told the First Lady that he hadn't gone easy on the students - they had learned the exact same routine that the show's Broadway dancers perform each night.

After shaking each student's hand, Mrs. Obama said that President Obama would be attending the event this evening, and told the dancers not to be intimidated.

"He's harmless. Just keep moving!" she said.