As the storefronts fill with decorations and the Rockefeller Christmas tree is lit, the holiday season means the opening of one of the most well-attended and iconic events of New York City—an event also known as the Christmas Spectacular, starring the Radio City Rockettes.
Whitewashing in American television, film, and performance has gained increasing attention recently, from calling out Hollywood with #OscarsSoWhite to the call for “non-white” actors by the casting directors of the Broadway hit, Hamilton.
Attempts to reverse the trend of all white productions in all of these industries has been significant, yet groups like the Radio City Rockettes remind us that the fight for greater diversity in movies, television, and stage productions is far from over. The Rockettes offer themselves as a perfect case study for whitewashing in the performance industry.
A dance troupe founded on the staple of uniformity and homogeneity, diversity is not a defining feature of the 94-year-old group.
One of the most impressive features of the Rockettes’ performance is the way they appear as a machine, moving as one cohesive unit made up of thirty or so individuals. This ability to appear as one unit has been the distinguishing talent of the Rockettes, and it is what also has led to their extreme lack of diversity and racism in casting.
The American dance troupe found its beginnings in 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri, then known as the Missouri Rockets. When Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, owner of the Roxy Theater in New York City, saw the troupe perform on their national tour, he bought the Missouri Rockets and eventually developed them to open Radio City Music Hall in New York—the world’s largest indoor theatre at the time.
Since its beginning, the requirements to audition for the Rockettes have stayed the same: A dancer must be at least 18 years old, between 5 feet 6 inches (1.71 meters) and 5 feet 10.5 inches (1.82 meters) tall, and proficient in tap, jazz, ballet, and modern dance.
The goal was to create the most precise group possible, even obscuring skin tone through lighting choices and makeup to create an even greater whiteness among the Rockette dancers. The message that the performance broadcasts is little tolerance for difference while celebrating homogeneity, or whiteness.
Even the original manager was known for saying he had forbidden a particular white dancer from tanning because he feared it would make her look “like a colored girl.” Furthermore, Markert’s successor, Violet Holmes, explained that their long tradition of racial bias was necessary for their attempt to make the dancers look like mirror images of each other, and saying, “one or two black girls would definitely distract.”
This message of homogeneity and colorism has created an environment that makes women of color uncomfortable, whether they are in the cast, auditioning for the cast, or even in the audience. However, within the past few decades, many have tried to change that.
The first black Rockette, Jennifer Jones, joined the Rockettes in 1987. At 19, Jones auditioned after seeing an ad reading, “ethnic minorities encouraged to attend.”
For the 2018 and 2019 seasons, deliberate efforts have been made to increase the level of ethnic and racial diversity within the group. In 2018, out of the 80 women in the troupe, only 4 were black. This most recent season, the troupe tried to attract more women of color to audition by holding open call auditions in Chicago and Atlanta.
“There is an awareness that there needs to be representation,” said Danelle Morgan, a 13-year Rockette veteran. She is one of the few black dancers and stands as a leader of the diversity drive.
“We want the line to be a reflection of all different faces and backgrounds,” she said.
A few women of color shared their sentiments at the most recent auditions. When asked why they believed the Rockettes remained such a white-dominated dance group, their answers captured different reasons for exclusion.
In Chicago, Justine Birden explained that few Black women apply because “the Rockettes are so ballet-based—it’s something you have to be trained in as a little girl and continue with. A lot of African-Americans drop out of ballet in their teen years.”
More explicitly, Dea’shinique Ramsey, 19, explained that as a Black applicant she and others tend to think, “I’m not what they’re looking for…You’re not going to get a diverse stage if you don’t have a diverse group auditioning.”
The push for more diverse casting has taken form in Rockette training camps across the country, joining forces with dance schools to foster interest in women who may think what they look like is “not what they’re looking for,” as Ramsey explained.
The 2019 Rockette class is the most diverse class to date. The troupe has three Black women, one Latina woman, and one differently-abled woman.
LaTarika Peirce, 27, tried out ten times before finally making the troupe. When asked why she auditioned time after time, Pierce said, “It’s important to see a group of strong, inspiring, confident women working together, no matter what color."
The Rockettes still have progress to make but the famous dance troupe is taking steps away from the mindset of their past. For now, Pierce hopes that all the native New Yorkers and world travelers who journey to Radio City Music Hall to see the world-famous Rockettes will embrace the women of color featured in the cast as part of the cohesive unit.