Updated: Feb 26
Cabaret Diversity Network had the privilege to speak with Sally Hong, Danielle Jolie, and Lainie Sakakura, Co-Chairs of the Rockettes of Color Alumnae, (ROCA). The alumnae group boast an impressive array of professions including doctor, lawyer, university professor, business owner, writer, director, choreographer, and Broadway performer. All are women. All former performers with the Radio City Rockettes hired between 1985 and today.
In 2017 certain dancers self-organized into an entity known as Rockettes of Color Alumnae (ROCA). Over the course of three years 63* women came together based on their shared experience as dancers with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Their mission is to be a place of support, education, and mentorship for current, past, and future Rockettes of color.
ROCA does not work with or alongside the Rockettes. It is a separate entity.
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
― 1909 W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
*63 is the approximate count of Rockettes of Color as of 2/21/2021
Cabaret Diversity Network Interviews ROCA
Three decades ago the New York City Rockettes broke their color line when they hired Japanese-born, Setsuko Maruhashi. Two years later in 1987, Jennifer Jones was hired, becoming the first dark skinned dancer to join the line. Since then, numerous peer reviewed journals, research papers, books, blogs, and mainstream press have written about this topic. It seems that the Rockettes have come to symbolize America's struggle with race.
If breaking the color line is an enduring media and scholarly subject in America, it is decidedly not a subject worthy for the Rockette's official history page. There is not a single mention of their famous mark on American dance history. Danielle Jolie, cast member for 18 years, offers clarity,
"They do purposely do not talk about what is negative. And what is negative is that they didn't diversify until 1985. And they got a lot of bad press about that when it did happen."
A Little Historical Background
In 1984 Gregory J. Peterson wrote, The Rockettes: Out of Step with the Times - An Inquiry into the Legality of Racial Discrimination in the Performing Arts (read the introduction here). Peterson argued that current practices in dance companies which discriminate on skin color are not justifiable. Up until this point, Violet Holmes, dancer, choreographer, and director of the Radio City Rockettes for 46 years, called dark skinned dancers a distraction to the Rockette aesthetic and justified keeping the company within a certain range of skin tone.
"More than five thousand women have danced with the group since it was created in the 1920s, every one of them white." -Gregory J. Peterson
Peterson's 1894 inquiry helped dance companies adopt a clearer understanding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and usher in a new era of hiring practices and roles for non-white dance artists.
Why wasn't the Civil Rights Act Enough?
"In 1964 Congress recognized that many employers were discriminating against employees or potential employees based on characteristics such as race and sex. Such practices were harmful not just to the affected individuals, but also to the nation's economy." - source
The slow march of progress is indeed just that. While legislation has been passed to promote equality and freedoms in America, the leadership in private organizations must take it upon themselves to adopt a new ethos. Latonja Sinckler describes similar parallels in the movie business during the same time period,
"After the Civil Rights Act was passed in the House and Senate, employers and industries were legally barred from disqualifying a qualified person from employment because of their race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.21 This law allows for the employment of minorities in fields that they were previously and routinely turned away from. This law made it so minorities could gain employment in any position as long as they met the requirements necessary for the job. The acting industry, however, has failed to adequately comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act." - source
The Necessity of ROCA
Over the decades diversity initiatives have been introduced in the company. When leaders of their dance company fell short of what is asked, the dancers self-organized into ROCA, a response to a company culture that had recently practiced discriminatory hiring which created and preserved an all-white cast.
Once united, the former Rockettes felt a deep fellowship. Often isolated and out numbered, as stated in AsAmNews, they didn't realize how important support from each other was.
Sally Hong explains further,
"There was a peak in the 1990s where we saw 13 ladies of color on the line. It was a reflection of what New York looked like at the time. If you've ever stepped out of the train at Times Square, you see every color - that is what I would like to see on stage at Radio City. When the Rockettes come out [on stage] no one blinks an eye if there are different colors on the line. It is as the way the world should be. Sadly, we are not there anymore. We reached a peak and then it dwindled."
Notably, the Rockettes blog is a treasure trove of inclusive pop culture, dance trends, and global diversity. The stories speak to a new era for the Rockettes. For example, stories about African American Rockettes engaging Black youth are celebrated:
There are posts embracing multiculturalism:
And colorblind inspiration stories:
The blog touches on all ages young and old, disabilities, mothers, fathers, even one post about gay pride. No stone unturned. No identity is left out. The tone, optimistic. The photos, a parade of skin tones in every hue. Socio-economic representation of every type. A precise aspiration.
The Question of Progress
Beyond glossy marketing campaigns, what is the opinion and experiences of the Rockettes of Color from inside the company?
There is a consistent theme that members of ROCA would like to point out; The Rockettes change only when faced with criticism. A response to trends, they say, is neither progressive nor earnest. The "improvements" are reactions, not an authentic embrace of equality. Danielle, Lainie, and Sally further remark,
"I was there for 18 years and there was a lot of fluctuation. There was a high and there was a low. They've had many meetings. I was part of the first meeting they've ever had." - Danielle Jolie
"They start with a diversity initiative led by white men." - Lainie Sakakura
"We are over here looking at this like, we've been talking about this since the 80s already!"
- Sally Hong
ROCA members also experienced consistent separation and isolation from other dancers of color. Dancers of color were strategically sprinkled throughout the lines, rarely grouped, and only one dancer of color would be chosen at a time. Danielle explains,
"Just so you should know, when Sally said there were 13 women of color, they were not all in the same line. There were different lines. There were never 13 women of color in one line. Those 13 women were dispersed amongst many lines. So you would see maybe one person of color on one line, maybe two on another."
Lainie Sakakura describes the experience of a performer who is continually treated as a 'minority person of color', “We were picked separately for publicity. If there was one person of your color chosen, there wouldn’t be a chance for another to be picked because they didn’t want more than one of us shown at a time. Imagine walking into an audition knowing they would only be hiring one white girl, if any. That is something white performers have never had to ponder."
Danielle re-iterates a crucial insight, "It starts at the top and it is not going to get any better until they diversify there."
"I am not a black artist, I am an artist." - Jean-Michel Basquait
Radio City is the ultimate destination for the brightest & the best.
The Ultimate Destination
The first Radio City Christmas Spectacular opened in1932 at Radio City Music Hall. After which, the show became globally recognized, stamped as an example of American greatness. Thus, it's dancers became symbols of mainstream American values.
While New York City's Cotton Club opened in1923, Katherine Dunham founded Ballet Negre in1930, and Balanchine created ballets for Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell in the1940s and 50s; Radio City Rockettes persisted with a singular ideological aesthetic until1985. This makes members of the Rockettes of Color Alumnae the first generation dancers to break the color line within the company. Finally, 34 years ago, diversity was introduced to the nation’s favorite Christmas destination.
She Said It Best
If dance is a stage for social stories to play out, then we must pay attention to the story of the Rockettes. Both glorious and shadowed, the company is an important hallmark of America's cultural identity.
In an American dance landscape mired in turmoil, Lainie Sakakura gives us parting thoughts to consider. Listen below.
Follow Lanie Sakakura at LainieSakakura.com
Follow Sally Hong at https://www.instagram.com/sallyhongittyyabba
CABARET DIVERSITY NETWORK
This is a Cabaret Diversity Network sponsored article. The mission of the CDN is to nourish, celebrate, and support the legacy of diversity on the stages of cabaret. Visit the CDN online currently on Instagram @cabaretdiversitynetwork
List of Sources
ROCA (Rockettes of Color Alumnae) was formed to share our unique history; support and advocate for former and current Rockettes of Color; and to identify, nurture, and mentor the next generation. We seek to share our knowledge from our experiences on the line with strength, perseverance, persistence, and unity.
Follow them on Instagram here: https://instagram.com/rockettesofcoloralumnae
This interview is not in association with nor reflect the views or opinions of the Rockettes.