The Rockettes are a precision dance troupe that performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. If you’ve ever watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the 1982 movie Annie, you’ve seen these top-notch tap dancers in action. The uniformity of the dancers is part of the show. And it’s all because of the Rockette Rule.
Rockette auditions are notoriously grueling. But only a fraction of professional dancers even qualify to audition. Because of the “Rockette Rule,” each aspiring Rockette must be measured “in stocking feet” to ensure she meets the 5’6″ – 5’10.5″ height requirement. Fair or not, this is a written rule that exists to maintain the overall aesthetic of the famous Rockette Kick Lines. No matter how talented a dancer may be, she need not apply at all if she doesn’t meet the Rockette Rule.
Height restrictions have not been the only Rockette Rule. For the first six decades of Rockette kick lines, all the dancers were also white and without visible disabilities. It would not be until the 1980s that the Rockettes hired their first non-white dancer (1985), their first Black dancer (1987), or their first dancer with a physical disability (1989).
Rockette Rule Case Studies
When I was a little girl, I watched Annie 462,789 times. I danced along to the soundtrack more times than that. I begged my parents for dance lessons. But even if I had been good enough (I wasn’t), I couldn’t have been a Rockette. Even if I had devoted my entire life to the pursuit of perfection in tap, ballet, and jazz (I didn’t), I couldn’t have been a Rockette. My full adult height maxed out at 5’3″. Hell, I can’t even reach the lima beans at my local supermarket without asking for help. I definitely couldn’t have been a Rockette. Dreams dashed, but I persevere.
Admittedly, I am probably not the best case study here. Let’s instead think about the “greats.” Fred Astaire was 5’9″ and perhaps one of the most celebrated dancers of a generation. He met the height requirement, and may have qualified as a “Male Dancer” in a Rockettes production. However, being a man would have precluded him from being a Rockette. Even Ginger Rogers, who was described as having done “everything Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels,” couldn’t have been a Rockette. She was only 5’4″.
Your Organization’s Rockette Rule
“What does the Rockette Rule have to do with my company?” In short (pun intended), everything. It’s not in the employee handbook, but I’m willing to bet your organization has a Rockette Rule. Ask around, and you’ll find it.
For example, one organization I worked for mostly hired Black women into hourly roles. But it was common knowledge among those women that they would never be promoted out of the call center or into a supervisory role.
“That’s just not true!” executives would indignantly proclaim. They would follow with words like hard work, meritocracy, and paying one’s dues.
Yet, if you walked the floor and looked around a bit, you could see a definite trend. There certainly seemed to be a Rockette Rule in place, although I never heard an executive admit it.
There Are Always Exceptions
You may well find exceptions to your organization’s Rockette Rule. People will often claim that any exception to the Rule disproves the Rule entirely.
One woman in the C-Suite? No Rockette Rule here! Not necessarily… Watch how that executive picks her battles. See if her male peers willingly follow her into uncharted territory. Does she feel safe sponsoring other women into executive ranks?
Or maybe there’s a role that’s always held by a person from an underrepresented group. Just not the same person all the time, because there’s a revolving door for the role. The leader feels tokenized and marginalized, so they leave. This happens over and over again.
Looking to Fill Bigger Shoes?
Are you trying to move up in your organization? Be sure you know your organization’s Rockette Rule. Do all the managers have college degrees? Did the executives all graduate from the same school? Are they all from the same part of the country? Common work history?
If everyone on the executive team is a frat boy from New England with a Masters degree from Tufts University, you’ve found your organization’s Rockette Rule. If all the managers were promoted because they posted great sales numbers five quarters in a row… Rockette Rule.
Look for the Rockette Rule before you start chasing more responsibility or a fancier title. Do you stand a chance as an applicant? I’m not saying you should give up. But if you’re fighting an uphill battle, best to know that going in. Find some allies, and develop an advancement strategy you can live with.
One company I worked for seemed to typecast Indian and Indian-American employees into information technology (IT) roles. Granted, lots of these folks came in as technologists. One of my colleagues was determined to leave IT and break into business operations. He intentionally took a role two steps down and gave up his Director title to do so. He specifically wanted to “come up through the ranks” in business operations so he wouldn’t be seen by his teammates as “an IT guy.”
Already a Leader in Your Organization?
If you already have a leadership title, you can effect change. Be an outspoken critic of the Rockette Rules in your organization. Call out bias in hiring and promotion processes. Seek out data to understand the scope and scale of the problem.
Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help. Lead at Any Level® offers quantitative and qualitative assessments, consulting, and training to help organizations build inclusive cultures and diverse leadership pipelines. [Learn more here…]