Since 1932, the Rockettes have been gracing Radio City Music Hall with their complex dance numbers and signature high kicks. Their moves and costumes have become icons of New York City and the Christmas season, garnering worldwide recognition. Originally “The Roxyettes,” the group has performed in over seventy Christmas Spectaculars and sixty Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades. Yet, beneath all the sequins and the bows, The Radio City Rockettes have a history that is far from shiny.
The Rockettes’ first performance took place in St. Louis, Missouri in 1932. All of the 16 original dancers where white. The ensemble remained all white until 1987 when the first woman of color joined the chorus line. One of the group’s earliest managers explained that the reason for a long-standing lack of diversity in the lineup was that varying skin tones would make the dancers look less uniform. “One or two black girls would definitely distract,” he said, from what is meant to be a seamless and spotless performance.
Of course, the Rockettes still imitated ethnic minority cultures while refusing to hire people from those cultures. Starting as early as the 1950s, the women performed dressed as stereotypes of Japanese Geishas and “hula girls”. Yet, traditional Hula attire is not the same faux grass skirts and party leis that the Rockettes wore on stage in 1958. Instead, the Rockettes dawned the Americanized version of Hula attire and style that became popular in United States during the 1910s as Western influence in Polynesia grew.
The decision to cast all white dancers was criticized by civil rights leaders and activists in the 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, the Rockettes policy violated the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in McDonald v. Santa Fe Trail Transportation Co. The court ruled that it was illegal to employ or fire an individual based on their race. Since the Rockettes failed to comply with such civil rights laws, the controversy surrounding the dancers grew. Despite increasing public pressure, the Radio City dancers remained all white into the late 1980s. Even when Jennifer Jones, the “First Black Rockette,” joined in 1987, many felt her inclusion was more of a marketing ploy than true integration.
Today, the Rockettes still represent a largely monolithic ideal of feminine beauty. Although the exact measurements have changed over time, as of 2019, Rockette dancers must be at least 5’6” and no taller than roughly 5’11”. The women are actually measured at auditions to ensure height requirements are met. Additionally, male Rockettes do not exist- at least not yet.
While the Rockettes’ current racial diversity hopefully indicates their stance that women of all colors are now valued more than they were at the time of the group’s beginnings, continued stringent regulations on body type and appearance show there is room to grow. As we celebrate tradition this holiday season, it is important to keep in mind their deeper messages about what-and who- we value as a society.