A former Rockette denounced as “disgraceful” on Thursday the decision to have the famed dancers perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration — and said that despite denials, the Rockettes are indeed still being pressured to perform.
In an open letter provided to TheWrap, Autumn Withers said the dancers were not permitted to speak to the media, and sympathized with their difficult situation.
“To perform for someone that represents everything that we, as women, have ever had to overcome is contrary to everything we know to be right and true,” she wrote.
“On a national level, the optics of this alone normalize the atrocious remarks Mr. Trump has openly made towards women,” Withers wrote. “The idea that if you simply ask their bosses or perhaps pay their bosses enough money, a line of beautiful women will oblige anyone in any way is exploitation…
“Is it not then covert sexual harassment to ask America’s most iconic troupe of female dancers to ‘volunteer’ to wear costumes and dance for a man who has a known public history of degrading women?” Withers asked.
Withers, who was a Rockette from 2005 to 2007, also said the company is fostering an “atmosphere of covert pressure” to force dancers to perform, saying that dancers who decline may not have their contracts renewed.
“By definition, voluntary means ‘of one’s accord or by free choice.’ Is it ‘free choice’ if you know that your boss wants you onstage in Washington regardless of your objections? The future of your Rockette career may then hinge on the choice you make,” she writes.
Withers’ comments fly in the face of denials by Madison Square Garden, which has insisted that the dancers are volunteering to perform at the inauguration, and that no one is being forced to do so.
Withers (pictured) also criticized the group’s union, American Guild of Variety Artists, for failing to protect dancers. She called it “disloyal” and “shameful.”
“To then witness AGVA initially side with MSG executives over the genuine concerns of its members was unfair. Considering current Rockettes are not permitted to speak to media outside of internal approval, the actions of AGVA are disloyal and shameful,” she writes.
Barry Watkins, a spokesperson for MSG, told TheWrap in a statement: “Over the years there have been over 1,000 Rockettes. This is one of two who have recently been quoted. This is a baseless allegation that includes no evidence of any proof whatsoever. This woman hasn’t been a Rockette in 10 years and has no idea what the current procedures may be.”
Watkins also said that the company had a “very productive meeting” with the Rockettes and “made very clear to all that participation is voluntary and there will be no repercussions if anyone decides to decline participation.”
A rep for AGVA did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
On Friday, BroadwayWorld.com obtained an email sent from the AGVA to the dancers shutting down any any talk of a boycott.
The union later clarified that it “never ‘demanded’ that the Rockettes perform at the inauguration.”
Withers ended her letter by urging her fellow dancers to fight on: “I want you to know that you are brave. I want you to continue to speak out in safe ways to expose the truth.”
Read the full letter below:
An open letter to Rockettes past and present:
Some of you I know and had the pleasure of dancing alongside. We are all Rockettes, each of us one of 3,000 women in total and part of an 84 year old legacy of artistry and athleticism. We are powerful, intelligent, classy women and dancers of an exceptional pedigree.
In 2008, my dance career transitioned to acting followed by writing female-centric TV. Two years ago, I founded the Hollywood Women’s Collective, to empower women in the arts and engender a spirit of support. As a former Rockette and an advocate for women, I felt compelled to speak out when the news of the Rockettes performing at Trump’s Inauguration was announced.
Current Rox – I know you are in a tough situation. One that past Rox have never had to face. I’m sure the frustration you feel is sickeningly divisive. Like you, I feel immense disappointment and heartbreak over this decision by MSG. To then witness AGVA initially side with MSG executives over the genuine concerns of its members was unfair. Considering current Rockettes are not permitted to speak to media outside of internal approval, the actions of AGVA are disloyal and shameful. Where do you turn when your own union fails you? Those meant to speak for your interests patronise you in the same condescending manner you’ve endured from management.
Then James Dolan, followed by AGVA, released public statements saying that “this particular event” would be voluntary. But that’s not exactly true, is it ladies? We all know there are unwritten codes of conduct implying every Rockette opportunity is to be viewed as an honor. We need only reference AGVA’s initial letter– “it is a job and all of you should consider it an honor” – for proof. It is not our union’s job to tell us what is and is not an honor. It isn’t clearly spelled out how one makes the automatic rehire list. Nor what factors go into getting rehired after being invited to re-audition. It is fair to say that everything counts: from year end performance evaluations, feedback from the PR department, insight from the dance captains, stage management reports, injuries, overall attitude at work, how you performed in rehearsals, timeliness, staying within your given weight range, whether you’re a swing or not, accepting or declining performance opportunities, complaining, and number of years with the company. To say participation in an event as high profile and likely lucrative for MSG as the inaugural performance has no bearing on future rehires is false. This fosters an atmosphere of covert pressure to accept or volunteer for every opportunity presented. By definition, voluntary means “of one’s accord or by free choice.” Is it “free choice” if you know that your boss wants you onstage in Washington regardless of your objections? The future of your Rockette career may then hinge on the choice you make.
People will justify it by saying–There’s no room for politics in the workplace. The election is over, move on. It’s just one gig, does it really matter? You may be even having this conversation in your own mind. Yes, that one performance matters on a national level more than ever before. To perform for someone that represents everything that we, as women, have ever had to overcome is contrary to everything we know to be right and true. Contrary to how every single one of us was raised, and contrary to all the training and achievements we’ve worked towards. This holds true regardless of calling ourselves Democrat or Republican.
On the first day of Rockette rehearsals every year, an MSG employee gives a presentation on sexual harassment and their zero tolerance policy. Sexual harassment is harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.
Dog. Nasty Woman. Slob. Miss Piggy. Miss Housekeeping. Eating Machine. Bimbo. Disgusting. Unattractive inside and out. Crooked. Pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers. Grab her by the pussy. Lock her up.
Is it fair to say that this would qualify as sexual harassment? Words from a man who stands accused of sexual assault by twelve women, yet also claims that ” no-one has more respect for women than I do.” Under a zero tolerance policy I think the average person, irrespective of political affiliation, would agree – Yes.
The machinations of being rehired are fuzzy. There is an unspoken code of conduct to see every job as an honor. Is it not then covert sexual harassment to ask America’s most iconic troupe of female dancers to “volunteer” to wear costumes and dance for a man who has a known public history of degrading women? On a national level, the optics of this alone normalize the atrocious remarks Mr. Trump has openly made towards women. The idea that if you simply ask their bosses or perhaps pay their bosses enough money, a line of beautiful women will oblige anyone in any way is exploitation.
Using the Rockette brand in celebration of Mr. Trump’s victory and inauguration, is a disgraceful move by the MSG ownership. A commitment that threatens to cheapen the brand which over 3,000 Rockettes have defined through their blood, sweat, and tears over 84 years. This is a moral issue and a women’s rights issue of broad significance. That is being overlooked by both MSG and AGVA, along with the emotional trauma and public maelstrom of simply being put in this situation. To publicly call the inaugural performance “voluntary” was a smoke and mirrors move to suck the air out of the real story–which is to say the reality behind the scenes of getting hired and staying hired as a Rockette disproves any performance from being truly “voluntary.” Thus rendering the decision to perform at Trump’s inaugural not one of your own, unlike the majority of other artists who can decline without consequence.
I want you to know that you are brave. I want you to continue to speak out in safe ways to expose the truth. I will continue to be a voice on the outside and if you want to speak with me safely or even anonymously, I am here. I have provided a way for you to reach me privately. Please do not fear for your jobs. There is an army of artists, journalists, celebrities, and women across this country who have your backs. We know the power when we come together in a kick line; there is immense power in organizing and coming together. The Rockettes can’t exist without you. There is no show without you. This issue is much bigger than politics, Trump and each of us individually. This is about how all women are treated and what we collectively normalize as acceptable treatment of women on a national level. It is about the little girl who sits in the audience and dreams of one day being on that stage and taking part in the Rockette legacy that we’ve all built.
In solidarity, Autumn Withers