As It Happens

Trump inauguration: Ex Rockette says some dancers still fear 'standing up for themselves'

The Rockettes will perform at Donald Trump's inauguration in January. The union representing the dancers has said participation is voluntary. But, former Rockette Autumn Withers tells As it Happens guest host Helen Mann that some dancers are still concerned about the consequences if they don't perform.
The Rockettes perform during the 76th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in New York December 3, 2008. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

The Radio City Rockettes announced last week that they would be performing at President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration in January. The news drew criticism from some on social media — including a current dancer.

Originally, the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) said in an email that full-time dancers were obligated to perform. More recently, the union has said the performance is voluntary for all Rockettes.

Despite this decision, Autumn Withers says some dancers are still worried about their jobs if they refuse to perform. Withers is an actress and a former Rockette. Here's part of her conversation with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann:

Autumn Withers is an actress and former Rockette. (Sam Khan)
HELEN MANN: What did you think when you first heard the Radio City Rockettes were going to be asked to perform at the inauguration?

AUTUMN WITHERS: You know, I had a heavy heart. I felt really disappointed. All political leanings aside, the Rockettes represent a legacy of strong, classy and intelligent women. They are artists and athletes combined. I think to associate this legacy in any way with a candidate who has a public history of degrading women and minorities is to really just tarnish the Rockette brand … In a way, it's even more damaging, perhaps, by associating the Rockettes with Trump because it normalizes the things that were said about women.

HM: Do you know anyone who is still with the Rockettes? Do you know if they share those feelings?

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a USA Thank You Tour event in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 16, 2016. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
AW: I do. I know about seven Rockettes who are still active and still with the company. The majority of Rockettes, currently, do not support Trump. There are a small handful who did openly support and vote for Trump. But the majority of Rockettes who are currently active, there was a lot of just heartbreak, and fear of losing their jobs, and not wanting to be thrust in the limelight this way and be put in this decision.

HM: The dancers' union has said this is voluntary — that they can opt out of performing at the inauguration. Do you think that's true?

"Calling any appearance voluntary for a Rockette isn't 100% accurate." - Autumn Wither, former Rockette

AW: Look, I think it's good that AGVA came forward. That statement was applying to the 12 full-time Rockettes. The company has about 80 women. Most of them are seasonal. 12 of them are full time because in the past year the Rockettes have launched their spring show. But, calling any appearance voluntary for a Rockette isn't 100% accurate. There is a fear of jeopardizing future employment and compromising your good standing with the company if you bow out of an appearance that you've been invited to attend — or has been arranged for you to attend.

HM: So, you think they would be keeping a record or putting a black mark beside the names that didn't want to do this?

AW: It is logged as a decline to accept, if you are particularly asked. At the end of every year, there is a year-end evaluation and it is considered for, perhaps, future public appearances and when you do re-audition, which you have to do at the end of every year.

The Rockettes perform during the 76th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in New York December 3, 2008. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid )
HM: Knowing what you know, and the concerns that you have, what would you recommend to these women? What should they do if they are told to dance or you can have this black mark on your record?

AW: I think that's such a multi-layered and personal question. I also think it really has to do with where you are in your career as a Rockette. If you're just starting out with the company, and you're in your first, second or even third year, you may have a lot more to consider as opposed to someone who has been with the company for a long time and maybe has been thinking about moving on in their career. You know, you also have to consider if you have a family and your family is relying on your health benefits. It's quite loaded … I mean I would say to them, do what you feel is best in your heart to do and know that you have a community in New York — the Broadway community — and a community of artists and dancers who will support you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Autumn Withers.

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