For the Rockettes, known for immaculate precision, the timing could not have been worse. At the height of their annual “Christmas Spectacular” at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the high-kicking dancers made headlines when Donald Trump’s transition team confirmed late last week that the women will perform at the president-elect’s inauguration.
On social media, some called for a Rockettes boycott, while others, concerned about the dancers being forced to add their sparkle to a deeply divisive event, rushed to their defense.
“Take a knee, ladies,” a former Rockette tweeted, referring toColin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has been protesting police brutality against people of color by refusing to stand during the national anthem at football games.
The image of a half-clothed chorus line dragooned into grinning and strutting for a man who has been caught on video bragging about his habit of grabbing women and kissing them — it’s an unsavory picture, for sure. But when Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the Rockettes, clarified this past weekend that the dancers’ participation on Inauguration Day is voluntary rather than compulsory, and the dancers’ union agreed, that appeared to put the matter to rest.
But does it?
There are no stars among the Rockettes; their currency is conformity. The angle of their wrists, the placement of the toe — every detail of every Rockette is matched to the nth degree. The goal of each dancer is not to stand out, but to fit in, to melt into the group. If she steps out of line, she can be replaced.
Having come into being in 1925, the Rockettes are rooted in our industrial past, as a tribute to the glories of manufacturing and mass production. The Rockettes, with their eye-high kicks and Busby Berkeley-like wheel formations, represent the perfection of time and motion. This has not changed in 90 years. The gigantism of the ’30s and ’40s lives on in the massing of all those radiant beauties, moving as one. Hundreds of women audition for one of the 80 slots every year — and fewer than those are allotted, because of dancers who return from year to year.
And so the Rockettes are still in a bind.
At least one of the dancers has made clear her objection to dancing for Trump, in an Instagram post that has since been deleted. “The women I work with are intelligent and are full of love and the decision of performing for a man that stands for everything we’re against is appalling,” Phoebe Pearl wrote last Thursday. “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 closed her post with “#notmypresident.”
Yetnone of the Rockettes is likely to take a knee. These dancers cannot pull a “Hamilton.” They don’t have the luxury of being able to stage a political protest, as Kaepernick and other football players have done, and as the cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton” did when it gathered onstage the night Vice President-elect Mike Pence was in the audience. In a demonstration of public moxie that went viral, actor Brandon Victor Dixon stepped forward to address Pence, and read a statement that included the following: “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir.”
Dixon, one of the stars of “Hamilton” (he plays Aaron Burr), has no fear of being fired for his words. He’s not easily replaceable, and the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the producers supported the actors’ demonstration. Similarly, the 49ers weren’t going to ax their quarterback for sitting out the national anthem.
The Rockettes’ strength is their uniformity. But in this situation, their uniformity works against them. Unlike elite athletes and Broadway stars, any individual Rockette is rather powerless, because she is so replaceable.
It may be distasteful that the Rockettes’ glamorous smiles and arsenal of killer legs will be deployed for Trump — the same exuberant attributes that lifted audiences out of the Depression dumps and cheered the nation during World War II. But in their highly competitive work environment, there is voluntary and there is “voluntary.”
One thing is clear: The Rockettes’ machine will keep turning, and it’ll be kicking on Inauguration Day.