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Something to dance about

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Lucinda Nobles voted for Wes Moore and was thrilled to make his inaugural ball her first (Photograph by Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

They wore sequins and satin, taffeta and tulle, and no one was going to dance harder than they were.

“I might not be here for the next one,” said Charlene Butler, 78, who kept chair-dancing even when she needed a rest because Maxwell was on stage and she had waited so, so long for this night.

Many of the 11,000 folks with tickets for incoming governor Wes Moore’s inaugural ball on Wednesday were fixtures at this sort of thing. State delegates with their lapel pins and prim white wines circulated and smiled. Political spouses resurrected ball gowns or a trusted, dark suit that still fit: “Thank you, Keto!”

The visual feast included a delicious, dusty-blue taffeta that looked like Vogue in the Habsburg Empire: “I’m with the state’s Attorney’s Office.”

A paprika jumpsuit: “I’m with State Department of Education.”

A mauve, floor-length gown: “Oh, I’m in IT with the transition team.”

Then there was the gaggle of cynical State House workers who promised to “liaise after this” and cheered whenever one of their number returned to the wonk-knot with a double-handful of honey-coloured shots in plastic cups.

But this was not your ordinary Maryland politics party. For starters, an auxiliary ballroom had to be opened and the fire marshal begged the crowd gathered at the Baltimore Convention Centre to spread out.

This was different. It was personal.

Lisa Murdock, a 58-year-old engineer, danced at Wes Moore's inaugural ball because "it was history, and we want to tell our kids, our grandkids that we were there" (Photograph by Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

The hardest-partying people, the ones who danced with joy no matter who was watching were the mothers, the grandmothers, the women who worked for years, sacrificing and persevering for their Black children’s futures.

That’s the story of Moore, whose boundary-breaking ticket included Aruna Miller, the first woman of colour and first immigrant elevated to lieutenant-governor in state history.

Every schoolkid who read his book, The Other Wes Moore, as part of the curriculum or reader who tore through it as an Oprah pick — she introduced Moore at the inauguration ceremony — knows how hard his mother, Joy, pushed him; how much intense, unrelenting mothering she did with her son ... the private school, the military school, the tough love.

Yes, history was made when Moore was inaugurated Maryland’s first Black governor. It was a history he honoured as he laid a wreath at the Annapolis waterfront spot where enslaved people disembarked to lives of human horror. Then he walked up the cobblestone hill to take his place in the State House. But that history belonged as much to the voters as it did to him.

And for the Black women who have carried so much of that journey on their backs, Wednesday was a night for joy; a crowning moment after generations of sacrifice — made step by painful step — that helped make Moore’s walk possible.

“This was a long time coming. A loooong time,” said Mary Butler Murphy, 79, who has met Mother Teresa, a couple of popes and presidents.

She is active in Maryland politics and a veteran of political celebrations, but promised this was the one where she was going to “party all night”. A sequinned turban added glamour, but her key was “comfortable shoes”. In this case, fluffy black slippers.

Lucinda Nobles was not even thinking about comfort. It was her first inaugural ball and she went all-out with glitter and sparkle.

“When we first heard of Wes Moore, we said, ‘Let's keep watching him,’” said Nobles, who had liked outgoing governor Larry Hogan and wanted someone who would keep his unified message, who would avoid divisive leadership.

“To everyone in this room and across this state, tonight is about you,” Moore said to the thousands before him. “Today was about you. Tonight is not a political moment nor a moment for a political party. It is a human moment, a Maryland moment, in which we all get to share.”

Nobles nodded, her point proved.

“And when Wes Moore was elected, I said, ‘Duffy and I are going to be here.’”

Her husband agreed. He usually does, you can tell.

And Lucinda Nobles (who did not want her age published) cheered loudly when Moore took the stage.

“There's just something about him,” Nobles said, pausing between taking a bazillion photos. “Something that says he’s going to lift up the city of Baltimore.”

The downtown centre — which will be transformed to host lacrosse bros for LaxCon this weekend, then the Maryland Quality Initiative Conference and after that a woodworking expo — showcased the hype and the sparkle that this young, charismatic governor promises: a new optimism for a city long struggling to regain its former prominence.

Moore said Maryland will be a state that “leaves no one behind”, reminding folks he knows what handcuffs on wrists feel like (he was 11 and caught tagging a wall) and will work to “change the inexcusable fact that Maryland incarcerates more Black boys than any other state” (by rate).

As the ball bumped on and the waterfront was aglow in purple lights, the Baltimore that has been left behind went on with business as usual.

The streets of Sandtown still ache with the energy that native daughter Billie Holiday brought from her childhood into her music. Blocks of terraced houses with boarded-up or hollowed windows look like a single, urgent disaster gutted them, instead of decades of neglect and disinvestment.

A mile away, as thousands of people in ballgowns and tuxedos celebrated, I wondered how the people of West Baltimore were feeling.

“We got our first Black governor tonight! Did you know that?" howled a 47-year-old man who was out and about rummaging in a van just before midnight when I asked him if he knew what was going on downtown.

“He’s not going to forget us!” he said, and asked that I identify him as Alley Cat. “I gotta tell you, it’s going to be tough to fix all this s***. Sorry about my language. But I think this dude is gonna try. You hear me?”

A block away from the spot where Freddie Gray was arrested by police nearly eight years ago and suffered a fatal injury while in their custody, optimism reverberated through a few folks gathered on a street corner, plastic cups in hand.

They had heard Moore’s story and said it gave them something to hang on to.

“Our city is corrupted,” said a mother of a 19-year-old. “But Wes Moore is going to help us. We’re praying that he helps us.”

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team

• Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before joining the Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts

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Published January 21, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated January 20, 2023 at 11:23 am)

Something to dance about

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