A week ago, when “Mary,” a New York City Rockette, spoke to Marie Claire about the mandate to perform at Trump’s inauguration, she invoked long-standing tensions in the performance industry, particularly along gender lines. She noted the horrific optics of “18 white women” kicking their legs and grinning behind Trump, telling the magazine that performing for a powerful man with a cavalier attitude towards sexual assault could “cause trauma” for some of her coworkers.
Less vivid, though still relevant, were her comments on the insidious workplace culture that made saying "no" more difficult for her fellow performers: “It’s because they’re young and uninformed, or because they want the money, or because they think it’s an opportunity to move up in the company when other people turn [the inauguration] down.”
The American Guild of Variety Artists, the Rockettes' union and the organization ostensibly responsible for protecting the dancers from such nebulous labor mandates, initially issued a memo reminding its members that the gig was mandatory, saying there was "no place" for politics on the job. It later recanted under pressure from the public and the press. Official statements suggest that enough Rockettes have volunteered for the planned performance will go on.
This isn't the first time the Rockettes have spoken out about political issues. Several years ago, some Rockettes called out the practice of veteran dancers being required to endure two-day auditions in order to keep their jobs. At the time, one Rockette told the New York Daily News, "If we were men, they wouldn't be doing this. This is a career for us. What management wants this to be is a gig.”
The entertainment industry, as has been widely reported, is one of the most skewed when it comes to gender equality; variety acts like the Rockettes are particularly vulnerable, in part because dancers and nightclub performers have historically worked on a contract basis. (And, one might assume, because such a vast swath of this particular workforce is female.) Reconfiguring the perceptions of such jobs—that they’re seedy or salacious, that dancers and variety artists don’t deserve the protections or job security of other sorts of employees—has been a decades-long and often imperfect process.
The AGVA itself was chartered in 1939 to advocate for the rights of “variety” artists—the burlesque dancers, rodeo hands, vaudeville performers, and carnival workers of America, an often transient workforce that skewed towards gig-to-gig employment. A successor to the American Federal of Actors—a union organized in part by the singer-slash-one-woman-business Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red hot mammas”— it would eventually become the first AFL-CIO union in American history to have a female president. In the ‘40s, the union represented a sizable number of strippers and “exotic dancers,” mostly through casual contracts on a dancer-by-dancer or club-by-club basis. Allegations of racketeering and fraud plagued the AGVA from its inception.
Such charges inspired a Senate investigation in 1962. The first and most highly publicized testimony came from Penny Singleton, aka “Blondie,” a lifelong union advocate and the star of 28 consecutive Blondie films. (She would later become in the union’s president.) In New York, in particular, the AGVA and the nightclubs it worked with were deep in the pocket of the mob; Singleton and others argued that as exotic dancers were treated as contractors with nightclubs, they were exploited and often at risk of being arrested for lewd behavior simply for following a club’s “house rules.” Singleton, in a prepared statement, charged that the AGVA had “abandoned” and “made outcasts” of the women who were paying its dues.
Perhaps predictably, while the hearings were intended to root corruption out of the union and give equal protection to all its members, the salacious details involving “b-girls” (bar girls) and exotic dancers made the most headlines. The Senate spent an inordinate amount of time trying to delineate the differences between b-girls, strippers, and sex workers. Some inferred that the majority of AGVA’s members were prostitutes.
Variety magazine editorialized on the PR nightmare of the investigations, calling the hearings and their focus on sex work a “black eye for the performers’ union and perhaps for show business. The image will remain negative…Coercing AGVA members, chiefly femme, into ‘mixing’, b-girl drink-hustling and suggestions of even more sordid avocational pursuits, have made the national headlines.”
The investigation, however, did eventually inspire the AGVA to consider nightclub owners employers proper. Dancers and variety artists were at least granted the protections of other workers: sick pay, unemployment, regular hours. And the union, despite infighting in the aftermath, did survive: By 1967 Singleton was organizing strikes with the AGVA, leading the New York Rockettes in a 27-day picket line right before Christmas for higher pay and renumeration for rehearsals. They won, just days before the holiday season: the 49 dancers won 15% raises on wages ranging from $99 to $125 a week.