The Un-spectacular Diversity of the Radio City Rockettes

Last night we took our kids to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. As we walked in to the enormous, stunning theater, we were transported instantly into a holiday wonderland. I hadn’t been to Radio City in more than ten years and my jaw dropped at the sheer magnitude and grandeur of it all. My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter was visibly overcome with excitement and wonder, and as we took our seats, the look on her face made me catch my breath. The curtain lifted and the tap-tap-tapping of jazz shoes on the stage started to fill the air. I smiled as I took it all in and looked over at my kids, who were mesmerized. And then I noticed something that made my heart sink. The Rockettes, scantily-clad in their holiday costumes, were almost all white.

There were 36 women on stage, of which two were women of color. That’s 6% of the troupe, for those of us keeping score. Here we are in one of the most iconic theaters, watching a performance that truly embodies all that is magical and special about New York City at Christmastime. There are ginormous screens showing the city’s landscape and a musical number on a sightseeing bus that took the audience on a tour from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building, Central Park to Time’s Square, Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Plaza. It was an apt expression of love for our fabulous city, and yet I couldn’t help but think about how wrong it looked to have such a disproportionately low number of women of color compared to the makeup of the city itself they were celebrating. (The 2018 US Census tells us that New York City population identifies as 67% people of color and 52% female.)

Now, perhaps some could argue that I don’t have a lot of credibility here, being that I identify as a Caucasian woman myself, but just as a person of color wants their daughter to believe that she can be anything she wants to be regardless of her race or color, I would like my children to understand that they can’t be anything they want just BECAUSE of their race or color. It is this kind of experience that starts to foster unconscious bias in the brain. It might not have resonated with my kids last night that the vast majority of the dancers on stage were white, but perhaps over time, if they are consistently under-exposed to dancers of all different races and backgrounds in situations like this, the brain can start to make quick judgments that these roles are associated with certain individuals or, more dangerously, are not associated with others. An otherwise absolutely “spectacular” show like this that is seen by so many people each holiday season should be a better microcosm of what our great city actually looks like.

The Rockettes have a bad history when it comes to diversity. Russell Markert, who founded the Rockettes in 1925 in St. Louis, forbid his all-white dancers to even suntan lest one of them “look like a colored girl,” he admitted decades later.” ( Source) The first black woman to perform with the Rockettes wasn’t until 1987. Fortunately, it does seem like they are beginning to make more of a concerted effort to support diversity, by teaming with African-American dance schools like Alvin Ailey in Midtown to “spark interest in women who might not have otherwise considered it.” This year at open auditions, the Rockettes traveled to Chicago and Atlanta for the first time in 10 years, and out of the 13 available spots, added three African-American dancer, one Latina and one differently-abled dancer.

I hope the Rockettes will continue to make strides in their diversity efforts so that when my family and many others return again next year, all children will have a chance to see themselves up there on the stage.
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