After much controversy, the Radio City Rockettes did indeed perform in conjunction with the Presidential inauguration. In the weeks leading up to the big day, the the long legged ladies drew much attention, first with news that they were being forced to perform at the inaugural ball, and then a revision was released stating that they would be dancing voluntarily and had the choice to decline if they so wished. In either case, for many of the Rockettes, their hopes for the outcome of this debacle were not nearly as high as their kicks.
Three days before Christmas, while the Rockettes were in the midst of their most popular and demanding show of their season, the Madison Square Garden Company (parent to the Rockettes organization) released, “The Radio City Rockettes are proud to participate in the 58th Presidential Inaugural.” The announcement, however, hit the media before reaching the dancers’ ears or eyes, and many learned of the news through screenshots and text messages from friends and family. Even so, like the pros they are, the Rockettes completed their world-famous Christmas Spectacular string of shows with grace and pizzazz, albeit sometimes with tears in their eyes. In an interview with Marie Claire, one of the few Rockettes who publicly spoke out about the situation explained that they felt they were “being forced to perform for this monster.”Another dancer wrote to the others in an email, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable standing near a man like that in our costumes.”
Most of the controversy revolved around whether the Rockettes were being forced to perform or had a choice. In the end, both were true. Thirteen dancers work year-round and are under contract to perform at all events, aside from vacation days. Eighty dancers are contracted only for the holiday season, and had the option to perform at the inaugural events (technically the Liberty and Freedom Balls, not the actual inauguration). Yet the question of whether the performance was mandatory or voluntary complicated matters further, as many women felt their position, ranking, or level of respect within the company was in danger, one way or the other.
The executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, James L. Dolan, is a long time supporter and friend of President Trump. In a meeting two days after Christmas, Dolan finally sat down with the Rockettes and mansplained, “This is a great national event. Every four years we put in a new president. It’s a huge moment in the country’s history. It usually signifies a whole change in how the government is going to run. The fact that we get to participate in it…we are an American brand, and I think it’s very appropriate that the Rockettes dance in the inaugural and 4th of July and our country’s great historical moments.”
No one in the performing arts needs to be told how hard a lucrative and fulfilling job is to find in the professional field. In an interview with the New York Times, a former Rockette remembers, “You get six months of pay for three months of work, and it is six months’ worth of work in three months because it’s so incredibly intense.” Even for those who live elsewhere in the warmer months, “You have insurance for the year, you have a great paycheck, you do all these fun gigs and side things, and you’re doing the show and dancing on the great stage… It’s amazing.”
Even if being a Rockette is not every dancer’s dream, conditions like that are nothing to guffaw at, which made the decision of to-dance-or-not-to-dance more difficult than one might think. For many young girls and much of mainstream America, the Rockettes are a symbol of strength and success, embodied in a quintessentially female form. To dance at an event kicking off the reign of a man who brags about sexually assaulting women would undermine the image of feminine power that the Rockettes, in their own way, defiantly represent. The new president’s treatment of minorities and immigrants as second class citizens and the fact that his administration is stacked with white supremacists deepened the dilemma even more for the VERY few African-American dancers in the company. Mary (not her real name), the Rockette interviewed by Marie Claire, stated, “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue—this is a women’s rights issue,” she continues. “This is an issue of racism and sexism, something that’s much bigger than politics.”
When asked about the possible damage of affiliating Rockettes with a Donald Trump presidency, Dolan, the executive of the troupe’s managing organization stated, “I don’t believe it’s going to hurt the brand. And nobody is more concerned about that than the guy sitting in this chair. I’m about to spend $50 million remounting this summer show. I’m going to spend a similar amount remounting next year’s Christmas show. I gotta sell tickets.” Certainly his concern lies more in the pockets of the Madison Square Garden Company, the Radio City organization, and yes, in some strange trickle down dynamic, in the financial stability of the individual dancers themselves. But was it worth it?
For one (now former) Rockette, Phoebe Pearl, it was not. When the news broke of the scheduled performance, Pearl wrote in an (initially private, later leaked) Instagram post, “I am speaking for just myself, but please know that after we found out this news, we have been performing with tears in our eyes and heavy hearts.” She publicly continued in an interview, “We are a group of women that is encouraging young girls to be strong, independent women, to fulfill their dreams, to go for it.” Even after the Rockettes and press learned that the performance was not required, Pearl felt she could not idly stand (or kick) by, knowing that her compliance could translate as support for a man whose speech, demeanor, actions, and policies are bolstered by misogyny, racism, and patriarchy. She resigned her position with the Rockettes, an action that has been widely lauded as courageous and admirable in the arts and entertainment community.
But not everyone agrees, as evident in messages to some dancers like, “Just shut up and dance.” Most of the Rockettes’ fan base is white, upper class, Christian, and conservative, so the notion of putting your high heel down at the thought of performing in an event celebrating the beginning of Donald J. Trump’s presidency seems ridiculous. It’s their job! or What are you complaining about? some might say. And true, while the Rockettes might not be the most cutting edge, avant-garde, or politically charged dance ensemble around, they are still DANCERS. They are artists in their own right and damn good at what they do. Some of hardest working women in the entertainment field (at least for three months a year), the Rockettes’ unmatched ability to craft precision and unity, build camaraderie, sustain the test of time in a difficult climate for any arts group, and just bring some freaking joy into the hearts of people all over the world is staggering. Their stamina, as individual dancers, as an ensemble, and as an organization is uncanny, which makes the bravery to step out of line and take a stand for what you believe in even more spectacular.
In the end, eighteen Rockettes took the stage at Washington Convention Center Friday night. After earlier reports that no African-American dancers had volunteered to perform, there was, in fact, one black dancer, shining bright and kicking high with the rest of the group. (The lack of diversity within the Rockettes is always glaringly apparent, but Friday it seemed even sadder and more symbolic.) Needless to say, they looked amazing, smiled and danced with the utmost sparkle and spunk, because that is what Rockettes do. Whether they all, or any of them, were actually enthused to be there, we may never know. The American Guild of Variety Artists, the company’s union said they had, “more Rockettes request to participate than we have slots available,” which, if true, would have somehow nullified the whole controversy. But the impassioned and risky outspokenness of “Mary” and Phoebe Pearl, and the shared outrage of many Rockettes (past and present) makes it hard to believe that all eighteen smiles on stage were truly genuine. Nonetheless, they did a knockout job, and brought at least a glimmer of joy and hope, even in a creepy ironic way, to a day full of darkness and gloom for so, SO, many Americans.