The poetry is perfect: Donald J. Trump, alleged sexual predator and coiner of the catchphrase “grab ’em by the pussy,” forcing the Rockettes, paragons of American femininity, to perform at his inauguration. It is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up if you were, say, a writer on Veep; it would be too obvious, too on-theme. And yet, here we are!
While outcry from the Rockettes themselves convinced Radio City to offer an out clause—participation in the inauguration, even for full-time dancers who usually cannot choose to opt out of a performance, will be voluntary for all — the aftertaste of coercion remains. The Rockettes are as lovely-looking as ever. But the optics are hideous.
As celebrities swarm whenever President Obama calls, so they scatter from the President-elect, appalled at the prospect of being associated with, or perceived as endorsing, any of the latter’s policies or proclivities. So it’s been slim pickings, vis-à-vis Inauguration Day entertainment, and a long list of boldface names have, shall we say, rejected Trump’s advances. Those who have declined include Aretha Franklin (who sang “My Country Tis Of Thee” at Obama’s first inaugural), Elton John (who previously reprimanded Trump for playing “Tiny Dancer” on the campaign trail), and Justin Timberlake (who apparently only likes animated trolls).
Though Trump insists he has no interest in “the so-called ‘A’ list celebrities” gracing his swearing-in with their presence, he surely does not want the weekend to go by without the pomp and circumstance afforded all his predecessors. So his master of ceremonies, Mark Burnett, reality TV mastermind and creator of The Apprentice — so, arguably the instigator of Trump’s presidency — extended an invitation to as all-American an entity he could find: the Rockettes.
While plenty of things about the 2016 election are unprecedented, the Rockettes’ presence at an inauguration isn’t one of them. The company was on hand at George W. Bush’s first inauguration, high-kicking at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, and performed again for Bush in 2005. Consider what the Rockettes symbolize — retro Americana, athleticism, beauty, joy — and the group seems like a natural fit for an event that calls for the performance of patriotism.
The decision to accept Trump’s invitation was not made by the Rockettes themselves but on their behalf, by Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan. Dolan donated $2,700 to Trump in early September 2016; MSG communications officer Barry Watkins told The Daily Beast that Dolan’s financial contributions to Trump were unrelated to the Rockettes’ inauguration performance: “In the Rockettes’ previous two [inaugural] appearances, Mr. Dolan supported Mr. Gore and Mr. Kerry — and this year Mr. Dolan has supported Mr. Trump.” And, as the Daily Beast reported, Dolan donated $2,300 to Hillary Clinton in March 2007.
Upon learning they’d been called to participate in the inauguration of Trump, a number of Rockettes balked. One, Phoebe Pearl, posted in her (now private) Instagram, “Finding out that it has been decided for us that Rockettes will be performing at the Presidential inauguration makes me feel embarrassed and disappointed. 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.”
In the wake of backlash from both the dancers and the public, Radio City opened up a loophole for the full-time dancers. (Originally, seasonal dancers were sent “an email announcing the performance at the inauguration and asking for their availability,” Marie Claire reported. “But the full-time dancers received a different email, only giving them the details of the appearance — not the choice of whether to participate.”) As the union to which they belong, the American Guild of Variety Artists, wrote in a statement, “There is a small group of year round Rockettes who are contractually obligated to perform at scheduled events throughout the year. We are pleased that Radio City has agreed that for those Rockettes with year-round employment, participation in this event will be voluntary as well.”
Though Dolan later admitted in a clandestinely-recorded meeting with the dancers on December 27 that he botched the messaging — the announcement was leaked to the media before the Rockettes were told about it — he did not waver from his decision. As Marie Claire reported, Dolan told the women, “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.”
It is this tension — between the Rockette’s brand of total, conservative uniformity and the reality that the company is made up of individuals with complex, divergent opinions — that gives this news its unusually powerful charge. Our shifting notions of what, exactly, constitutes “American” style, sound, appearance, and behavior complicate this further, as do questions about how a citizen can, or should, effectively express patriotism and believe in the peaceful transition of power without personally supporting the incoming president. Is now a crucial time to present a unified front before the country and the world? Or is First Amendment-protected dissent more vital than ever before? What’s more important: Falling in line (in the Rockettes’ case, literally) behind the new administration, or using whatever means are legal and available to demonstrate extreme disapproval of the platform upon which Trump rose to office?
Dolan dismissed the idea that the performance would damage the Rockettes’ brand, pointing out that “a good portion of people” voted for Trump and may, in turn, buy tickets to the Rockettes’ next Christmas show. When one dancer said,“it just sounds like you’re asking us to be tolerant of intolerance,” Dolan replied, “Yeah, in a way, I guess we are doing that. What other choices do we have? What else would you suggest?”
And this seems to be the center of the clash: Obviously, what many Rockettes are suggesting is that they, like so many entertainers before them, refuse to perform at inauguration. Dolan’s decision is based on a perception of the Rockettes — a troupe for every single American, including Trump and Trump supporters — that, it appears, many of the Rockettes do not share. Which is not to say Dolan is totally in the wrong, so much as to suggest his intel is out of date.
The very values and concepts that the Rockettes evoke for so many Americans used to be just that: American, in a non-partisan, everyone-can-agree-on-this way. But what used to be apolitical is apolitical no more; no one can agree on anything. And so many of the things the Rockettes-as-brand have come to signify have been claimed by the right, shed by the left, or both. (It’s worth noting that, looking at the past 24 years, the Rockettes have now been invited to the inaugurations of two Republican presidents but zero Democrats.)
While technically a New York institution, the Rockettes have avoided association with New York values, instead holding onto their roots as a Midwestern outfit. (The troupe, then known as the Missouri Rockets, debuted in St. Louis, and were officially crowned the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in 1934, by which point they were based in New York.) Theirs is a Christmas Spectacular that is unabashedly, well, Christmassy; it includes a “Living Nativity” scene. Christmas, as you’ve surely heard, is under assault by godless liberals who wish one another “happy holidays” and don’t think Santa Claus is necessarily white.
Speaking of: The Rockettes didn’t have a single black member in its marquee troupe until 1987, 62 years after the company’s inception. Founder Russell Markert didn’t even let white dancers have suntans, because “it would make her look like a colored girl,” and this grand tradition of exclusion was upheld nearly until his death. In 1983, Rockettes director Violet Holmes insisted the dancers had to be all-white, for aesthetic, artistic purposes: The women needed to be “mirror images” of each other. “One or two black girls in the line would definitely distract. You would lose the whole look of precision, which is the hallmark of the Rockettes.’’
To get a sense of the progressive perspective on the Rockettes, one can look through the New York Times coverage of the company. The paper of record has generally described the dancers in a condescending, if bemused, tone. Though there is an appreciation for the stunning athleticism on display, this reverence is accompanied with disdain for the hyper-femininity and Stepford-sameness of the Rockettes’ ranks. “One after the other, like beautiful, glittering drones,” begins a story from 2005. “All flashing the same red-lipstick smile, batting the same fake eyelashes.” Eight years earlier, the dancers were “pretty, smiling automatons.” The audience is categorized as “the girls in red velvet and Mary Janes and the tourists with laminated folding maps” — which is to say, this is an New York institution that, like Times Square or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, only out-of-towners actually thrill to see.
So the Rockettes have not surrendered to secular pressure, nor have they wavered — much — on the physical requirements for membership; prospective dancers still must be between 5’5.5″ and 5’8″ to qualify. It is this commitment to classical Christmas and to the appearance and presentation of its stars, as much as the Ziegfeld Follies-inspired precision dancing, that can make the Rockettes seem, to the more conservative mind, like a traditional delight, and, to the more progressive one, an antiquated kitsch-fest.
It remains to be seen how many Rockettes will volunteer now, in the aftermath of this public disagreement. The Rockette who spoke with Marie Claire indicated that no dancers of color had signed up to perform yet, and she thinks “It’s almost worse to have 18 pretty white girls behind this man who supports so many hate groups.” But there’s more than just one job on the line: Rockettes reportedly enjoy “one of the steadiest gigs in the business,” with decent pay and year-round health benefits.
Whatever Rockettes do participate in Trump’s inauguration can find comfort in this: There will be at least one woman in attendance who wants to be there even less than they do.