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Why Rockette Phoebe Pearl Is a New Dance Hero

We never know where our heroes will come from.

On January 10, the Bessie Awards held an event at LaMama theatre, where Phoebe Pearl, the Rockette who spoke out against dancing at the Inauguration, appeared. Pearl remains the only current Rockette to speak publicly under her real name, and the dance community responded to her courage.

In an emotional speech, she said that chose not to perform at the inauguration, and that she was just standing up for human rights. She then toasted the first amendment, to the cheers of about a hundred people in the dance community.

Phoebe Pearl speaking at a Bessies event, photo by Heather Robles

I’m sure you know the story by now. Just before Christmas, the Rockettes learned they would be performing at this Friday's Presidential Inauguration. Donald Trump, who has bragged about sexual assault and entered dressing rooms at beauty pageants he owned to “inspect” the women, will soon be inaugurated as president. Many entertainers have refused to perform, but the Rockettes will be there, a decision made by their owner, Madison Square Garden.

In December, Pearl posted a complaint on Instagram, saying she was “embarrassed and disappointed” at the prospect of performing at the Inauguration. Because of the reaction, she had to change her Instagram settings to private. Another Rockette, using the pseudonym Mary, was quoted in Marie Claire and other publications: “It's the people in our wardrobe and hair department, some of whom are transgender. These are our friends and our family, who we've worked with for years. It's a basic human-rights issue. We have immigrants in the show. I feel like dancing for Trump would be disrespecting the men and women who…we care about."

James Dolan, executive chair of MSG, and the dancers’ union, American Guild of Variety Artists, eventually came to an agreement that any of the dancers could opt out of the performance—that went for both the full-time Rockettes (of which there are about 13) and the many more who are brought in just for the Christmas Spectacular.

There is still a worry that the dancers who choose not to perform will lose their good standing. An MSG spokeswoman says those rumors are only hearsay:  "We had a very productive meeting with the Rockettes and while we will keep the details of that meeting confidential, we can say, it was made very clear to all that participation is voluntary and there will be no repercussions if anyone decides to decline participation."

However, Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, who worked in the ballet company at Radio City for 12 years, knows about retribution. Her bold act of speaking up in 1978 actually saved Radio City but cost her her job. (To find out more, read her book, Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story.) In an email she wrote, “I am very proud of the women who were opposed to performing for a man with such low moral standards. I am also concerned about the consequences that these talented woman might have to face.”

In an NPR segment on January 7, MSG was quoted as saying more dancers volunteered than they have slots for—which means that at least 18 out of 90 or so are on board. But Mary said that none of the dancers of color signed up.

If that's true, it will be a lily white line-up. We will find out on Friday. That would be sad because the Rockettes have worked to cultivate diversity in the last few years. But I suppose that would just be another sign of the new regime.

Photo © MSG Entertainment.

Back to the LaMama event last week. Lucy Sexton, director of The Bessies, explained, “As an organization dedicated to supporting dance and dance artists, The Bessies wanted to celebrate Ms. Pearl with a toast to the First Amendment of the Constitution. It is this essential American freedom of expression that dancers embody in their physical work onstage. Dance and all artistic expression are by their very nature personal and political, and a critical part of our national cultural dialogue.”

At the event, she said, “To Phoebe Pearl, to her fellow dancers at the Rockettes, know that we support you, that we salute you, that we stand ready to fight for your—and all of our—rights under the Constitution, especially the precious right of Americans to freely express ourselves."

Avant-garde icon Yvonne Rainer also spoke: “I applaud and celebrate Phoebe Pearl for her courage and audacity in her refusal of and resistance to the present political calamity.”

And here is an excerpt of Pearl's talk, caught on video by dancer/activist Salley May:

“People have been calling me courageous, but I don’t see it that way. …I’m just standing up for human rights….standing up for what we all deserve, and how we treat each other. As artists we all owe it to ourselves, owe it to the community. It’s our obligation to use our platforms to do what’s right. This isn’t political, this is about human rights. No matter where you come from, your sexual orientation or race, you deserve respect, you deserve love. We live in a country that grants us the right to speak against something that’s against that.” Then she raised her glass and toasted the First Amendment.

Dance writer Eva Yaa Asantewaa, who attended the event, posted on Facebook that she was “moved almost to tears to hear from dancer Phoebe Pearl, one of the outspoken, resisting Rockettes. In order to keep going these days…I have to keep people like this and the examples they set constantly in mind…. Phoebe, we are so proud of you, and we've got your back. People, don't ever underestimate a dancer!”


Correction: January 17, 2017

This post has been updated to reflect a statement from an MSG spokesperson about allowing dancers to opt out of the performance without repercussions.  

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