Can the Rockettes Really Be Reinvented?

They've traded high heels for combat boots. But can Radio City really convince fans of the show to look beyond those legs to appreciate the dancers' strength and athleticism?

Big news, Christmas tradition lovers: After nearly 80 years of dancing toy soldiers and Raggedy Ann dolls, Radio City Music Hall is giving the Rockettes a makeover for this year's Christmas Spectacular, which opens today. As Melissa Ormond, president of MSG Entertainment, which produces the show, told the New York Times, it's time for the queens of high kicks to get some respect. “Of course they’re beautiful, but they are not eye candy,” Ms. Ormond said. “They’re incredibly talented dancers, they’re a sisterhood, they’re a team, they’re glamorous, they’re capable, they’re empowered, they’re confident.”

The show's director and choreographer, Linda Haberman, is responsible for the reinvention. She's replaced a quaint Raggedy Ann number with "Rockettes to the Rescue," which is equal parts video game and "Xena: Warrior Princess." The dancers battle their way, super-heroine-style, to defeat the evil Humbug King and save Christmas. "I wanted to show the women's strength and their athleticism because that's a side of them that never gets seen by the general public," she told the Times. There's no question that you have to be strong and athletic to be a Rockette. The dancers perform as many as 300 high kicks per 90-minute show -- and on weekends they do five shows per day. That's 1,500 high kicks in 13 hours. Marathon runners are getting thigh cramps just thinking about that. 

But if the millions of tourists who flock to see the Rockettes every year don't seem to fully grasp just how hard the dancers work, Radio City has only itself to blame. Because for the past 78 years, it marketed the show not on the strength and stamina of its dancers... but through their particular brand of family-friendly, holiday-appropriate sex appeal. As the New York Times itself wrote in last year's review of the show: Its "enduring success" is from the appeal of women's legs. Obviously." (Plus Santa and Jesus on stage at the same time.) 

So although it's exciting to hear the show's top brass talking about an "empowered sisterhood" of Rockettes, I'm not convinced -- yet, anyway -- that we'll see much of a change. There are still legs aplenty. Individual bodies still work as one "to become a glittering human machine," which means the show still depends on an unbelievably rigid definition of female beauty that is all about making women look like photocopies of one another, down to their height, weight and lipstick color. 

It all reminds me of another holiday tradition that reinforces an unattainable beauty standard via scantily clad, high-stepping ladies: The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, which airs right after Thanksgiving, just in time for their Angels to inspire us all to wish for diamond-encrusted bras under the tree. On Monday, The Cut blog reported that star Angel Adriana Lima has been on a protein shake diet for the past nine days, after six weeks of grueling twice-daily workouts. And some girls (although this idea is equally as scary), like Chanel Iman, actually work hard to gain weight for the show. Sophia Neophitou, the show's chief stylist, is quick to reassure us: "It's like they're training for a marathon... They are athletes in this environment." 

There's just one teensy problem with that comparison, as The Cut notes: "The Victoria's Secret model's athletic pursuit, unlike a professional athlete, is only the appearance." Rockettes go one step further -- they have to look beautiful and accomplish impressive physical feats -- but this is the first year Radio City has implied it truly cares more about the latter than the former.

I'm all for celebrating how hard all of these women work. I'm just not sure they should be working so hard to achieve an unattainable beauty ideal. Or that we should continue to nestle that ideal into the wholesome bosom of holiday tradition -- making it that much harder to question or change. 

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