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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.
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
In today's dance world, it seems to go without saying: The more varied the training, the better. But is that always the case? Rhonda Malkin, a New York City–based dance coach who performed with the Radio City Rockettes, thinks trendy contemporary techniques that emphasize improvisation and organic movement quality are detrimental to the precision and strength needed to be a Rockette, in a traditional Broadway show or on a professional dance team. Her view is controversial: "If you really want to work, making $40,000 in three months for the Rockettes or $25,000 in one day filming a commercial, you need ballet, Broadway jazz, tap, hip hop—not contemporary," she says.
On the flip side, techniques that allow dancers more freedom may help them connect more deeply with their body and artistry, while providing release for overused muscles. We broke down the argument for both sides:
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.
Not all ballet dancers cling to their youth. At 26, Lauren Lovette, the New York City Ballet principal, has surpassed the quarter-century mark. And she's relieved.
"I've never felt young," she says. "I can't wait until I'm 30. Every woman I've ever talked to says that at 30 you just don't care. You're free. Maybe I'll start early?"
When Beatlemania swept through the U.S. in the 1960s, Mark Morris was one of millions of young Americans who fell head over heels for the revolutionary group. "I was not immune," the choreographer says. "My sisters were mad about The Beatles and so was I. At age 12 I had a crush on Paul, of course."
Flash forward 50 years and he is still rocking to the British band, but this time with a new Beatles-inspired dance work his company is touring across North America, starting this month with scheduled stops in Seattle, Toronto, Portland, Oregon, and another 25 cities before the end of 2019.
You could call it island-hopping, but it's not exactly a vacation. After choreographing last season's Come From Away, and winning a Tony nomination, Kelly Devine zipped from frosty Newfoundland to the Caribbean beach resort that is the setting for Escape to Margaritaville.
In the fall, she was shuttling between them, before they start this month: flying to Toronto to prepare a new Canadian production of Come From Away, then jetting back to Chicago for the final stop of Margaritaville's four-city pre-Broadway tryout.
"These two shows could not be more different from each other," Devine says with a dash of understatement. Come From Away is about the small Newfoundland town where airliners grounded by the 9/11 attacks dumped thousands of unexpected visitors; Escape to Margaritaville, at the Marquis Theatre, is a comic island romance concocted from the beachcomber songbook of Jimmy Buffett.
How does someone go from being a New York City Ballet corps member to training Hollywood A-listers like Natalie Portman, Rooney Mara and Jennifer Lawrence? By getting injured, says Kurt Froman.
When an ankle sprain left him sidelined a few years back, Froman was "sitting at home, depressed" when he sent his friend Benjamin Millepied an email asking what he was up to. It turned out that Millepied had just been hired to choreograph some scenes for a movie, but had to be in Paris during pre-production. "He needed someone to teach two actors choreography and get them in shape," says Froman. With nothing else on his plate, he said yes, and started prepping Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis for Black Swan.