The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes were born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1925. In 1927, Samuel Roxy Rothafel discovered them and brought them to New York City. Sixty years later, in 1985, the first Asian American Rockette was born. Her name is Setsuko Maruhashi. The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes were born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1925. In 1927, Samuel Roxy Rothafel discovered them and brought them to New York City. Sixty years later, in 1985, the first Asian American Rockette was born. Her name is Setsuko Maruhashi. Setsuko was the changing face that brought the historically Caucasian Rockette dance team into the diverse lineup it is today. Two years later, in 1987, the first African American Rockette took the stage transforming the typical lineup into a modern day identity. Setsuko Maruhashi “thinks it’s really cool” that she is not only the first Asian American but the first minority to grace the most famous kick lineup in the world. Asiance visited Setsuko at one of her “Rockette” dance classes in NYC and spoke to her on what it was like being a member of one of the most visible symbols of New York City Christmas.
I didn’t see any who looked like me or other minority performers. There were no Hispanic or African American Rockettes. I was the first non-white!
ASIANCE: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Setsuko: I was born and raised in Japan. I came to the United States after I graduated from High School in Japan. I went to college in the United States. I went to SUNY. After I retired from Radio City, I finished my college. I started going to college at the end of my career at Radio City. And I was bringing up my daughter.
I was a Rockette for over 14 years. People think that is a long time but at that time it wasn’t unusual to be there that long. Some people were there longer than 15 years. It was an actual career. The work schedule today is totally different.
They had 20-25 minute performances and 4 or 5 shows everyday, year round. Rockettes worked just 3 weeks or 21 days straight. Then they got 1 week off.
That was the type of schedule at that time. That was a full time job.
One time Radio City was almost taken down. After that, they changed the way they do the entertainment over there. The entertainment schedule was good for the old timers but it didn’t appeal to the later generation of people. It wasn’t going as well as it had been. It became a financial problem.
ASIANCE: How did you become a Rockette?
Setsuko: I remember before I was a Rockette, I went to one of the shows at Radio City. I saw the Rockettes. That was the first time and Ginger Rogers was there. She was talking about how important it was to keep the Radio City Music Hall alive and how it was the responsibility of the city. I was a dance student at the time.
I saw Ginger Rogers and a few more shows before I auditioned. The very last show I saw was in 1985. It was Liberace. The Rockettes worked with him a lot. They toured together and had a very good relationship. I saw the Rockettes perform and they looked beautiful. One of the costumes was very appealing to me. I was able to perform that number later on. I thought they looked so beautiful and they were very precise. But it didn’t occur to me to audition for the group because they looked very tall. They are all Caucasian. They have very nice long legs. I thought it would be wonderful to perform there but I never had an idea that I should audition.
I started auditioning professionally in 1983. Being a Radio City Rockette was a major thing for me and still is. The Rockette audition in 1985 was my 30th audition that I went on that year. That audition took place on May 9th. The rehearsal started on June 10th, and the show opened on June 21st.
First thing they made us do at the audition, before I made even one tap (sound), was to measure my height. I had to take off my character shoes and everyone was standing in dance tights, so there was no way to fake it. In 1985, the minimum height for a Rocket was 5′ 5 ½. I’m 5’6″. I barely made it. I knew I would pass, but I stood so tall against the measuring tape against the wall. I really stretched my spine (laughs) to make sure I passed the height element.
Then they gave us a very easy tap combination. That wasn’t difficult, if you know how to tap. They cut people here. I was able to stay.
We did a very short jazz routine and then we did a more complicated dance routine. More dancers were cut. They eliminated more people.
So the people that were left did the kick line up. The people who were left at the end of the day were told we would get a call back. At that time, whoever could do pointe work was told to bring their pointe shoes. So I brought my pointe shoes!
In 1985, Disney Productions wanted to have the summer show at Radio City. They said they didn’t want to have the Rockettes in the show. So the Rockettes went on strike. They picketed. Eventually, they negotiated. That turned out to be my first show as a Rockette and then they opened spots at Epcot Center in Florida. There were major openings for the Rockettes. Usually they take 4-5 new ones a year as replacements but now there were 18 spots open. So there were huge openings. It was a great opportunity and great time to try out. The existing Rockettes had their choice to spend it at Radio City or take a trip to Florida. Most of the Rockettes took the jobs down in Florida. So there were many openings in New York City. I think 18 spots? Close to 400 people auditioned. So that is how I got to try out for the Rockettes.
Today, I wouldn’t pass because I’m too short. Now it is 5′ 6 ½”.
Also, when I auditioned the maximum height was 5’8 ½”, now it is much higher. It’s almost open now. As long as the Director really likes you and as long as you are the minimum height, she will take you.
If you could get 2 pictures and compare the lineups from the 1980s to today, you will see they are much taller today.
ASIANCE: What is your dance history?
Setsuko: I started ballet in Japan. After I came here, I added Jazz, Tap and some Modern. I studied Modern at The Grand Studio (The Martha Graham Center) www.marthagraham.org). Martha Graham sometimes came to watch us in class. She made me very nervous. The Graham Technique wasn’t for me. I really wanted to do musicals, more entertainment performing art or more commercial work. I’m still learning. I’m still taking classes, whenever I can, in the city. I still go back to teachers I have known for many years.
I started taking ballet class with my daughter.
ASIANCE: Does she want to be a Rockette?
Setsuko: No. She’s quite a dancer. She’s talented in performing. She was at the American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive Scholarship last year. She said, “Mommy, I like to perform but, I don’t want to be a professional dancer.” She is in the gifted and talented middle school in Math and Science. She is very busy. She gets a lot of homework so she can’t go to the classes anymore on weekdays. But after school on Friday, we go to the professional dance studios in Mid-town.
ASIANCE: Why do you think there are so few Asian women dancers?
Setsuko: There are many Asian dancers. After me there were 2 coming in as I was going out. I performed with both of them. One is currently working. They are both Japanese American.
ASIANCE: How do they characterize Rockettes? What is the technical dance term?
Setsuko: In one word, it is Precision Dancing.
ASIANCE: Did you always want to be a Rockette?
Setsuko: I didn’t think I had a chance to be a Rockette.
ASIANCE: Because you were Asian or short?
Setsuko: I didn’t know what the requirements were and because of my cultural and ethnic background. I didn’t see any who looked like me or other minority performers. There were no Hispanic or African American Rockettes. I was the first non-white!
I did not know about the Rockettes until I got to the United States. There were a few dance companies in Japan which did the kick line-up and they were famous for it. At that time I did not know where that came from. The kick line up was familiar to me.
In 1988, the first African American Rockette was born. We did the half-time show for the Superbowl and she was huge publicity for that because she was the first.
ASIANCE: What advice would give to Asian American girls who want to become a Rockette?
Setsuko: They work very hard to improve their performance skills. Think very hard about what you will do when you are not performing. This is part of being a performer. I know it is very hard for the young people. This is hard to think about for young people, because they just think about their ultimate dream of being a dancer. How could they want to think of anything else?
I understand that. But I went through a hard transition. It is very difficult to make a career change, particularly as a dancer. You have to have such devotion, passion and very strong focus. You also have to think of something else which will help you make a living because like I said, it used to be a career, but now it is not.
When I was there, we had the The Easter Show and the other was the Christmas Spectacular. Then between those big shows, we toured, we had promotions and commercial shootings. I also had the opportunity to appear as a tour Rockette for Radio City. Tourists take a backstage tour of Radio City. I met them and explained about the history of the Rockettes and what it was like to be a Rockette. I shared my personal experience working with the Rockettes. At least I was working. The current Rockettes do not have more opportunities to perform than we did. They go home. Some of them don’t even live in NYC anymore. They come in, rehearse, perform and go home.
ASIANCE: What the most wonderful experience through being a Rockette?
Setsuko: I made many good friends.
ASIANCE: Are they having a reunion for the 75th Anniversary?
Setsuko: No. But sometimes there is a reunion through the Rockette Alumnae.
ASIANCE: Do you insure your legs?
Setsuko: No I didn’t insure my legs
Click here to see where Setsuko teaches here dance classes. www.thedancestudiops.com