Will the Rockettes Ever Be Woke?

Posted November 30, 2018 11:47 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — On Wednesday, as it happened, I went to see the “Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes,” which is something you can do at 11 o’clock in the morning in late November in Manhattan. I was by myself. My son, like so many children growing up in New York and fed with its imperious cultural attitudes, would sooner eat a head of escarole than choose to see something dependent on the word “spectacular” as a noun.

There were plenty of children in the audience, though, even if it was a school day, and plenty of old and middle-aged people. Many were wearing Santa hats. The crowd was overwhelmingly white.

I mention this fact because at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the Rockettes, whose performances are taken in by almost 1 million people every holiday season, are themselves almost all white. The show I saw featured, as far as I could tell, only one African-American dancer in the lineup of close to 40. There were, in the end, more camels onstage than black women.

Among the 80 dancers who make up the Rockettes corps, 10 percent are women of color, a spokeswoman for the company told me; you are seeing only half the cast during any given show because there are so many performances to fill — on weekends, up to six a day. Regardless of that, any variance in skin tone is obscured by lighting and makeup that have the effect of creating a stultifying homogeneity, which is the point and amounts, ultimately, to a creepy celebration of whiteness. Ancillary cast members in the pageant — non-Rockettes — include a black man playing an elf and a black man playing a bellman.

The Rockettes are the creation of someone named Russell Markert, who first brought them to the stage in St. Louis in 1925 and oversaw their direction at Radio City Music Hall from the early 1930s until his retirement in the early 1970s. His goal had been to build the most precise and uniform dance troupe in the world, and to that end he imposed height requirements for the women in the line, insisting, as well, that they have experience in three distinct dance styles: ballet, jazz and tap. These expectations continue unabated.

Such a vision accommodates little tolerance for difference. Before his death, Markert acknowledged that he had forbidden a particular white dancer from tanning because he feared it would make her look “like a colored girl.” In 1982, his successor, Violet Holmes, defended the long tradition of racial bias, arguing that the dancers needed to be “mirror images” of each other and that “one or two black girls would definitely distract.”

Civil rights activists had long complained about the lack of diversity. “They stayed lily white all these years, in New York City, of all places,” Hazel N. Dukes, president of the New York State chapter of the NAACP, remarked in the 1980s. “When I hear ‘White Christmas,’ to me it doesn’t mean Caucasian Christmas.”

Dukes was commenting on the first black Rockette, Jennifer Jones, who joined the troupe in 1987. Jones was 19 at the time and was moved to audition when she saw an ad for an open call that read, “ethnic minorities encouraged to attend,” she told me recently.

“Against the multicultural backdrop of New York City, a lot of people felt that my milestone came too late,” Jones said. “But New York was still three years away from electing its first African-American mayor, and when you look at the history of modern American dance, there’s a long legacy of discrimination and exclusion.”

That history of exclusion as it pertains to the Rockettes has hardly been challenged at the box office, nor, apparently, by corporate sponsors. The show opens with a recitation of the names of those many, many sponsors, but if you stop paying attention — if you get bored and check your phone to see what the Mandarin duck is doing in the Hudson River, as I did — you have a chance to be reminded later. There’s a scene depicting Santa at the mall, and the set designers have filled the mall with the storefronts of the show’s corporate partners.

In August, Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the annual holiday production, announced revenues of $1.6 billion, representing an 18 percent increase over the previous year. At the time, the company’s executive chairman, Jim Dolan, cited the “Christmas Spectacular” as a driving force of the gains.

When I questioned Madison Square Garden Co. about the racial configuration of the Rockettes, a spokesman responded in a statement that the company recognized that it had “work to do” and that it was “taking a number of steps to showcase greater diversity.” (One of those steps includes “building a strong and diverse dance education program to help grow an inclusive pipeline of future Rockettes.”)d

It is a curious fact of the company’s imaging that it does not include the naming of Jennifer Jones to the Rockettes during the 1980s on a website delineating the decade-by-decade history of the troupe. Instead, we are told that during that period, the Rockettes performed in Las Vegas and Tahoe and appeared in a commercial for L’eggs pantyhose. The road to enlightenment is long.