Last month, the Radio City Rockettes kicked up their precision heels at the 71st Annual Tony Awards for the first time since 2005. They marched on stage with the cast from Come From Away in the opening number with host Kevin Spacey, then later performed a full routine to “New York, New York” sung by the incomparable duo Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Henry (who starred together in last year’s one-night-only performance of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.)
The 36 dancers took the stage at Radio City Music Hall, which has been their home since 1932, to welcome their guests with dazzling routines, costumes and award winning smiles. Comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney of Oh, Hello! fame introduced them by shouting, “A baby boy born during their last performance would be bar mitzvahed today!” While 13 years seems like a long time to that young boy (and congrats, whoever you are!), it has been a scant 30 years since another Rockettes milestone; the addition of dancers of color.
The Rockettes have been high-kicking in unison since they were founded by Russell Markert in St. Louis, Mo in 1925. Markert wanted to create the world’s most precise dancing troupe and as of today, his vision was a success. However, like most things during that time, that vision did not include people of color. Markert’s dancers, who were all white, were not allowed to sun tan lest they look “like a colored girl.”, ironically representing one of the most diverse places on the planet.
The Civil rights movement decades later did little to change the minds of the people in charge. In 1982, the director at the time, Violet Holmes stated, “One or two black girls in the line would definitely distract. You would lose the whole look of precision, which is the hallmark of the Rockettes.” This ridiculous notion was removed from the standard Radio City practice only five years later when Jennifer Jones became the first black woman to kick alongside her 35 Rockette sisters. (video of her debut performance)
One might expect Corny Collins from Hairspray to slide in and declare at that moment the Rockettes were “officially integrated!” Thankfully, he did not, as one can only take so much of a man named Corny sliding anywhere announcing anything. Nevertheless, the West Coast cast of the Rockettes already cast a Black dancer earlier that year and the NYC cast hired Japan-born Setsuko Maruhashi to dance with the troupe a year earlier.
Things continue to look up for the Rockettes since they have embraced equal-opportunity casting. Aside from the January 2017 kerfuffle where only half of the kickline performed at President Trump’s Inaugural Ball, (a gig that Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday declined) the talented women continue their rigorous winter and spring schedules without incident. Now young Black dancers can see themselves represented on stage and as one blogger said ecstatically, “Someone with hair like mine is in the Rockettes!” That #BlackJoy is something we can all celebrate.