The Rockettes Revolution That Would Mend America

Rockettes Rehearsing. Photo: Flickr user, Andrew Dallos

They should dance, but not like the world assumes they will. By performing at the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, the Radio City Rockettes are in position to make one of the most influential artist statements of the 21st century. Admired by millions and generations, they first hit the stage back in 1925 and have been at home at Radio City Music Hall since 1932. Popular director-choreographer Mia Michaels praises them specifically for “their talent, versatility, personality, power and their relentlessness of perfection.” That’s dance — made in America.

It might be sacrilege to the dance world, but I personally never liked the Rockettes’ concept and never dreamed of being one. Also, I was too short. The Rockettes’ aesthetic is the ideal American woman, en masse, synchronized: 36 dancers between five-foot-six and five-foot-ten-and-a-half inches tall (in stocking feet), beautiful, gifted, upright, hardworking yet effortless. MSG Entertainment — The Madison Square Garden Company promotes them as “the world’s most famous precision dance company, one of New York City’s most illustrious and beloved icons.” The website continues:

From appearances on Dancing with the Stars, the Tony Awards, and Super Bowl Halftime Shows to Presidential Inaugurations, the Rockettes are above anything else — stars.

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They have four options.

But the Rockettes’ iconic status is only half of where their current potential lies. They also have the capacity to combine their high-kicking prowess with what Martin Luther King, Jr., described as “the fierce urgency of now.” In a video post on The Rockettes’ website, Michaels, who worked with the troupe last spring, put it this way:

We are taking the tradition but pushing it. The ingredients are right there for something so very, very special.

As for the The Rockettes’ artistic leadership team — that is, if they consider themselves artists, rather than entertainers — they should embrace their potential and go ahead and dance on Jan. 20.

I came to this opinion unexpectedly while watching David Turnley’s documentary Shenandoah. The film covers the horrific 2008 murder of an undocumented resident of Pennsylvania, Luis Ramirez, at the hands — actually, feet — of four white high school football players and the local police coverup that followed. Of Shenandoah, critic Christopher Bell wrote:

The town can be read as a representation of major issues facing our country; how depressing economic times can lead to (among other things) violent, unruly racism.

My “aha!” moment was the film’s final scene, in which resident gather for a 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march during the area’s first-ever official observation of the holiday. In 1994, Congress, during the Clinton administration, designated what is commonly called MLK Day as a national day of service. Every four years, the holiday also falls around the time of the swearing-in of our most prominent public servant, the President. I think the way out of our current national mess, then, is to use this year’s MLK Day to focus on service.

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This gets us back to The Rockettes’ artistic leadership and the dilemma of its dancers, many of whom have protested being forced to dance for Ttump. How could they, as artists, heed a rejuvenated call to serve? There are four options:

  1. Produce a surprisingly powerful number. They already have choreography that heads in this direction while also upholding their signature show. This move wouldn’t be overtly political but would appeal to both Trump supporters and the liberals craving artistic disobedience — like how choreographer Ryan Heffington bridged the conservative-liberal divide by leveraging Maddie Ziegler’s popularity and twisting it for a Sia Furler music video.
  2. Go bold and declare an ultimatum — like Rebecca Ferguson, who agreed to perform only if she could sing the protest song made famous by Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit.”
  3. Treat this as a pure entertainment gig and do what they are getting paid to do as professionals. Impressively parade these talented, smiling ladies as anticipated in their contract, even if some only dance to keep their jobs.
  4. Make a statement as a company by refusing to perform for the inauguration of a man who led a hate-catering campaign and instead direct their energy toward something more cause-worthy.

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I hope for Option 1. Someone’s got to heal this divided citizenry. Dance can do this and a nationally televised show presents an ideal platform. The Rockettes shouldn’t perform for Trump (like my friend was forced to dance for Putin), but rather for his supporters. That said, no artist should ever be asked to “tolerate intolerance”; they have a responsibility to challenge it. Option 1 recognizes The Rockettes as artists with that type of depth and awareness.

Also, their performance shouldn’t target the audience simply as prospective ticket buyers as Option 3 would have it. During a secretly recorded Dec. 27 meeting with the dancers, Madison Square Garden Executive Chairman James Dolan made this specious argument:

If 1% of 1% of [Trump supporters] come to our show, we’re going to do great.

Dolan, who donated to the Trump campaign, comes at this opportunity as a business transaction, not an expression of service. He doesn’t give audiences enough credit. He treats artists as commodities.

Option 1 recognizes the whole situation as complex — and could possibly sell more tickets in the long run. With subtle updates to their well-rehearsed contemporary choreography, some bold music choices, costume selections, and strong, apparent diversity, The Rockettes could perform a powerful number that sends a message — that all Rockettes, all dancers, all creeds, would be proud to kick for.

After last year’s political season, America doesn’t need or deserve entertainment. We need art. As the legendary actor-singer Paul Robeson reminds us, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They are civilization’s radical voice.”

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.