When I was a child, my family watched the Rockettes perform on national television every year for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I adored the Rockettes and wanted to be like them. They were so beautiful and talented and perfectly in sync. To me, a Thanksgiving without the Rockettes would have been like a Thanksgiving without turkey — practically un-American! So when I grew up and actually became a Rockette, it was a dream come true.
About 1,200 shows and 240,000 kicks later, I got the call to perform with the Rockettes for the 2001 presidential inauguration of George W. Bush. I nearly fell over. Being a Rockette had already been a wild ride, but an inauguration might be the most spectacular gig ever.
What a gut-wrenching decision it was when I chose to decline.
I did not decline due to an ethical dilemma or moral objection. I had a husband and a toddler and plane tickets to Florida. I just couldn’t swing it. My family came first, and the gig was optional, not required.
However, I would have loved to have taken part in such a momentous occasion in our nation’s history. I knew what an absolute thrill it was to perform for a president, because I had danced for President Bill Clinton in 1994 in the Concert of the Americas in Miami. (This was before I became a Rockette. And before the Monica Lewinsky scandal knocked the president off his pedestal.) Instead, I snuggled my little boy and enviously watched on TV as my lucky Rockette colleagues kicked high without me at our nation’s capital. It never dawned on me that the Rockettes' attendance might be considered an endorsement of Bush and all he did, said, and stood for.
The Rockettes’ performance at the inauguration is not an endorsement of Trump
Fast-forward to the current controversy surrounding the Rockettes’ invitation and acceptance to perform for the upcoming Donald Trump presidential inauguration. I am now retired as a Rockette. But how devastating it is for some Rockettes to feel they have to object to participating in what should be one of the highest honors, privileges, and opportunities of their lives. Unlike I did in 2001, they aren’t bowing out because of family obligations. They are upset with Trump, particularly his treatment of women. Degrading comments. Sexual harassment allegations.
And I understand where they’re coming from: This is absolutely not what the Rockettes stand for. How can the Madison Square Garden Company allow its classy, respectful, squeaky-clean Rockettes to be associated with such inappropriate behavior? Especially when it’s carried out by the person who is supposed to set a good example as our nation’s top leader?
But here is how I see it: The Rockettes’ participation shouldn’t be about Trump’s mistakes, as spectacular as they are. Their attendance should not equal a political endorsement by their brand.
The Rockettes should not be about politics, but rather above politics
The Rockettes have a legacy of patriotism including World War II USO tours to entertain the troops and presidential inauguration performances in 2001 and 2005. As performers, the Rockettes should not be about politics but rather above politics. They should stand for an ideal greater than any individual president or party lives up to.
The Rockettes should perform at the upcoming inauguration because they are a nonpartisan, American institution that honors America and its citizens as a whole, not because they endorse a particular president. Their attendance should signify a celebration of our country, our democratic process, and our peaceful transition from one leader to another.
The Rockettes should perform because they stand for excellence and goodness and grace and respect and the strength of women, no matter who is being sworn into office. Their presence needs to be felt and seen as a source of inspiration and hope for the future, not just when the situation is perfect and the president is perfect and the party in power is perfect. We desperately need good role models and good examples in the spotlight.
Rockettes can feel pressure in situations like this to all agree upon how to respond. After all, these are co-workers we call “sisters.” Rockettes spend countless hours in the dressing room together, sharing their most intimate secrets and asking each other for advice. They throw birthday parties, engagement parties, wedding showers, and baby showers for each other. When they’re completely exhausted, they make each other laugh so they have the strength to get through one more show and crank out 200 more kicks. They share some of the crowning moments of their lives together on stage and off.
Our Rockette “sisters” are the people with whom we develop lifelong friendships. (At our big alumnae reunion in 2015 there were a few Rockettes in their 90s who had danced together in the 1940s!) When there is disagreement within the ranks, or with the parent company, it can feel as painful as a family feud.
Whether the Rockettes are in heated negations with the Madison Square Garden Company and their union, the American Guild of Variety Artists, or in difficult debates with each other, they still have to join forces to pull off a spectacular show. They still have to catch each other when they fall — quite literally in the Rockettes’ famous wooden soldier fall. They still have to dance side by side and shoulder to shoulder with smiles on their faces.
The Rockettes didn’t get to be the world-class artists and athletes they are without teamwork and hard work and discipline and perseverance. Rockettes succeed or fail as a team, but their perspectives are individual and diverse. As Rockettes, we always had to find a way to come back together in spite of our differences, because the show must go on.
The Rockettes’ inauguration show will go on, whether individual Rockettes like it or not
And this presidential inauguration performance is going on whether some Rockettes like it or not. Because it’s not up to the individual Rockettes to decide which jobs are appropriate for the brand. Celebrities like Elton John can take a political stance and refuse to perform if they wish to send a personal message to Trump. But the Rockettes are not individual celebrities. They are famous as a group and a brand. The particular president (and his affiliated party) may not resonate with the Rockette brand, but the event — the United States presidential inauguration — does.
This election has been a touchy and tearful journey for many of us, and, thankfully, the Madison Square Garden Company is allowing those individual Rockettes opposed to performing at the inauguration to bow out. Back when I declined the offer to dance at the Bush inauguration, it was no big deal. There were more Rockettes than spots to fill, and plenty of women wanted the work. It wasn’t an emotionally charged situation like it is now.
I voted for Hillary Clinton but recently discovered that one of my dearest, closest Rockette sisters voted for Trump. So did a number of my favorite relatives. Two of my best friends voted for Clinton, but their husbands voted for Trump. I cherish and respect all of these people, and yet we did not all cast our ballots in the same direction. Our reasons for why we voted the way we did differed, sometimes greatly. And we didn't necessarily agree with everything about our respective candidates. Voting can be complicated. The Rockettes’ agreement to perform at the Trump inauguration can be complicated, too.
If I had my druthers, the Rockettes would perform for every presidential inauguration. Presidents come and go, and political parties go in and out of power. But the Rockettes have kept right on kicking for more than 90 years, celebrating our country, regardless. They forge ahead as an iconic American institution that embodies teamwork, creativity, and the pursuit of excellence. I suppose it’s a stretch to say that a Thanksgiving without the Rockettes is practically un-American. But a presidential inauguration without the Rockettes? I am thankful we don’t have to see that this time around.
Kristi Lynn Davis is the award-winning author of Long Legs and Tall Tales: A Showgirl’s Wacky, Sexy Journey to the Playboy Mansion and the Radio City Rockettes.