Terpsichorean Heroes: Phoebe Pearl

It all started with an Instagram post.


That is (part of) how The Radio City Rockettes performance at Donald Trump’s inauguration became national news a month before the scheduled appearance. In the wake of her moment of outspokenness, Phoebe Pearl, the Rockette who made the post about the performance has become a dance world hero.

“The women I work with are intelligent and full of love,” Pearl said in her original Instagram post. “I am speaking for just myself but please know that after we found out this news we have been performing with tears in our eyes and heavy hearts.”

Since publicly voicing her displeasure at being compelled to perform at the inauguration, Phoebe Pearl has maintained her stance. Most recently, Pearl spoke at an event hosted by the Bessie Awards at the LaMama Theatre, where dance icons like Yvonne Rainer praised her courage and toasted the first amendment. But for Pearl, this was more than just an act of bravery. “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,” she said.

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.”-Phoebe Pearl

“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,” said Bessies director Lucy Sexton. 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.”

While Pearl may not think of herself as being overly courageous, the bravery of her act cannot be ignored. Thus far, Pearl is the only Rockette to speak out using her real name. Another Rockette gave an exclusive interview to Marie Claire under the pseudonym “Mary” but many others have remained silent. Pearl has also not backed down from her original statement, instead holding fast to her beliefs and continuing to publicly claim them, even as the Rockettes performed at the White House today.

In a world that is as small as that of professional dance, speaking out publicly against your employer can have severe consequences. While The Rockettes organization has said that the dancers’ fears of retribution are unfounded, Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, the former dance captain of the Radio City Ballet Company, begs to differ. Novellino-Mearns successfully rallied to save the Radio City Music Hall from demolition and have it registered as a city landmark in the 1970s, efforts she discusses in her new book Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story. In a recent interview with journalist Sheryl McCarthy, Novellino-Mearns explained  why it has taken more than 40 years for the story to be told.

They were not gracious in their defeat. Rockefeller center…it was truly a David and Goliath story and the little guy won. And I don’t think the Rockefellers liked that–were used to that–and they buried the story completely… I never worked there again.-Rosemary Novellino-Mearns

Whether Pearl’s job is on the line remains to be seen but even if she continues to high kick as a Rockette, her actions will remain a poignant statement that the decisions of dance organizations are not always (if ever) reflective of the dancers who comprise them.

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