First Lady Michelle Obama welcomes the audience to a dance tribute to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Judith Jamison in the East Room of the White House in Washington, September 7, 2010.

*The White House East Room became a grand stage for some of world’s most talented dancers – who pirouetted, spun, did gravity-defying leaps and one-handed handstands during Tuesday’s inaugural performance of the new White House Dance Series. [Scroll down to watch video.]

Hosting the event was Michelle Obama, who brought along daughters Sasha and Malia — just home from their first day of school — and mom Marian Robinson, as well. The First Lady clapped along to some of the dances but leaped to a standing ovation when Dayton Tavares, one of Broadway’s high-flying Billy Elliots, finished his song, “Electricity,” with a virtuoso set of turns.

Malia (2nd R) and Sasha Obama (R), attend the dance tribute.

The emotional highlight of the evening, though, was the performance of “Revelations” by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was especially poignant because the evening was a tribute to Judith Jamison, the company’s artistic director and an iconic figure in the dance world who will step down in 2011 after two decades leading the company.

Mrs. Obama called Jamison, 67, “an amazing, phenomenal, ‘fly’ woman.”

Judith Jamison, choreographer and artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, acknowledges applause from the audience during her White House tribute.

“Let me tell you, your picture in ‘Cry’ was the only piece of art in our house,” Mrs. Obama told Jamison, sitting in the front row. “Cry,” a 15-minute solo dance of great dramatic power, was the Ailey work for which Jamison was most famous in her dancing years, and an excerpt of it was performed Tuesday by company member Linda Celeste Sims.

Linda Celeste Sims of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performs an excerpt from "Cry."

Tuesday’s event, directed by former New York City Ballet star Damian Woetzel, began with an afternoon of workshops for some 90 or so dance students who traveled to the White House from schools all over the country. Young girls in leotards, their hair tightly wrapped in buns, sprawled on the shiny East Room floor, stretching their legs into splits as they warmed up. Jamison watched with a smile on her face as current Ailey dancers then taught the kids excerpts from “Revelations.”

After their workouts, the students had a quick break, cleaned up and returned for the performance, which also included excerpts of “Cloven Kingdom” by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” danced by the Washington Ballet.

There was also a dizzying display of hip-hop acrobatics from Super CR3W, whose spinning handstands, headstands and similar moves evoked whoops of pleasure from the crowd. Not to be outdone, Ashley Bouder and Daniel Ullbricht of New York City Ballet showed that ballet can be equally energetic in its own way with a lively performance of George Balanchine’s “Tarantella.”

At the end, Jamison addressed the crowd. “Dance is the soul of this country!” she declared. “This is so American, it’s ridiculous.” In a weekend interview, Jamison told The Associated Press how she’d been to the White House a few times before, but never for an event as exciting as this.

“What a rare opportunity, to be invited by your country’s first lady to be honored like this,” Jamison said. “This event is totally unique. It’s so terribly important to recognize this art form and to understand how important it is to the fabric of this country.”

“This will be another clarion call to people: Pay attention to your arts!” Jamison said.