Over the years, the Rockettes have traveled with the USO to entertain troops overseas, danced during the half-time show at the Super Bowl, and greeted service personnel during New York City’s Fleet week.
They are known for their Christmas Spectacular, a show that debuted in 1933 and which still features two numbers, including the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” from the original production.
The group, consisting of 80 part-time dancers and about 12 to 13 full-timers, performs the Christmas Specular five times a day, seven days a week. Like most of the Rockettes’ choreography, the show features dancers arranged by height, with the tallest in the middle of the line, and precision moves requiring exact timing and exacting rehearsals.
In 2001, the Rockettes performed at George W. Bush’s inauguration. This year, they may, or may not, show up at Donald Trump’s inauguration.
By anyone’s measure, the Rockettes are wholesome American entertainment, their appearance and routines well-suited to a populist president. And yet at least three Rockettes balked when told by Madison Square Garden executive James Dolan that they were required to perform for Trump on Jan. 20.
Dolan, who owns Madison Square Garden, the company that manages the Rockettes, soon backed off, but not before Marie Claire magazine published secretly recorded comments from a meeting in which Dolan lectured the Rockettes about their contractual duty to perform at Trump’s ceremony. Now, according to the American Guild of Variety Artists, the Rockettes’ union, no Rockette, full or part-time, will be required to perform at the inauguration.
This is the first time in five decades that the Rockettes have expressed such strong displeasure with the conditions of their employment. Since the Roaring 20s, they have smiled, twirled, and kicked up their lovely legs without much complaint, and today they are considered a thoroughly American icon.
Inspired by the Ziegfiled Follies, Russell Markart founded the Missouri Rockettes in 1925. Markart wanted his dancers to be taller than the Ziegfield girls because he was convinced that taller women (Rockettes must stand between 5-foot-6 inches to 5-foot-10), who could do eye-high kicks, would attract larger audiences.
He was right.
By 1932, the Missouri Rockettes drew the attention of Samuel Roxy Rothafel, who brought the Rockettes to NYC to perform at his Roxy Theatre. There, they were billed as the Roxyettes, but when Rothafel moved the act to Radio City Music Hall, they regained their old name. At RCMH, the Rockettes found themselves in opulent surroundings, with a stage designed to look like a setting sun, wallpaper flecked with gold foil, and eight restroom lounges adorned with paintings by preeminent modern artists such as Stuart Davis.
The group spawned the careers of at least five starlets, including Vera-Ellen, who at 5-foot-4 was a rare exception to the height rule. Vera-Ellen would go on to appear with Gene Kelley in “On the Town” and play Danny Kaye’s love interest in “White Christmas.”
Another noteworthy former Rockette was Joan McCracken, known for her ability to incorporate comedy into her dance moves. McCracken later married choreographer Bob Fosse and served as Truman Capote’s model for Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Suzanne Rogers started out as a Rockette and then joined the cast of “Days of Our Lives” in the 1970s. She has played the soap opera’s Maggie Horton for more than 40 years.
Lucille Bremer, who became a Rockette at 16 years of age, played Judy Garland’s sister in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and in 1948 married the son of Mexico’s president.
Suzanne Kaaren, who once dreamed of competing in the high jump at the Olympics, was one of the original NYC Rockettes, performing at their first show on Dec. 27, 1932. After leaving the Rockettes a year later, she was the leading lady in the Three Stooges’ “What’s the Matador?” and starred opposite Bela Lugosi in “The Devil Bat.”
Though being a Rockette might help launch a woman’s film career, it is not a very lucrative job in and of itself. Full-time Rockettes, who do not work throughout the year, earn about $40,000 annually, plus health benefits.
Though the pay they receive requires many Rockettes to find other employment in their off-season, the pay is better today than it was in 1967 when, with the help of the American Guild of Variety Artists, the Rockettes launched a strike for better working conditions.
During the month-long strike, the Rockettes demanded pay for previously uncompensated rehearsal time. While the dancers won the strike, one condition of employment remained unchanged until 1985: All the dancers were white, a requirement justified by claims that women of color would negatively affect the visual consistency of the routines. In 1985, the Rockettes’ owner hired the group’s first Asian dancer, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the first African American Rockette was hired.
To an outsider looking in, the high-stepping, predictable, glitzy Rockettes are the human equivalent of Trump tower itself — unapologetically gaudy, belonging to an earlier aesthetic, and perhaps not very tasteful. And yet the group is made up of women raised with modern sensibilities, and those women are not afraid to voice their objections about performing for a man who is more than a little creepy around pretty females.
However, newer dancers, and part-timers, might feel pressure to perform simply because not doing so could draw the ire of Dolan and other Rockette executives. In any case, out of more than 80 Rockettes, there certainly will be enough dancers at the inauguration to make Trump happy.
I can see the Tweet now: Corrupt media lied about protests. SAD. Rockettes LOVED inauguration.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.