Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

“We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us while also carrying the responsibility of those who will continue forward by standing on ours.” – Lainie Sakakura

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re honoring our trailblazing AAPI Rockette sisters. To celebrate their accomplishments, we connected with four Asian American former Rockettes to revisit their inspiring journeys, favorite memories, and best advice for the next generation of women on the line.

Setsuko Maruhashi, the first AAPI Rockette

Setsuko Maruhashi, first AAPI Rockette (1985-1999); member of Rockettes of Color Alumnae (ROCA)

How did it feel being the first AAPI Rockette?

SM: “I felt such a great honor when I learned that I became the first AAPI Rockette.”

What would you say to a young AAPI dancer who one day aspires to be a Rockette?

SM: “Believe in yourself and keep on keeping on! I had gone to more than one hundred dance auditions before I became the first AAPI Rockette. In fact, the Rockette audition I went to in 1985 was my 30th audition in the year!”

 Lainie Sakakura, the second AAPI Rockette.

Lainie Sakakura, second AAPI Rockette (1994-1995); co-founder and co-chair of Rockettes of Color Alumnae (ROCA)

Looking back on your time as a Rockette, what are you most proud of?

LS: “When I joined the Rockettes, I had already been a Ballet Hispanico company member and cast in two Broadway shows. I did not expect the Rockettes to challenge me the way they did. The sisterhood and deep pride each Rockette has for their line as a whole is unique unto them. They would say, ‘the sign says, Starring the Radio City Rockettes.’ Meaning, the 36 of us together was the star, not the individual. Being in the line, you always felt proud and humble, never forgetting your responsibility to be perfect and to never ‘kick out’ (make a mistake). I am most proud of simply dancing with those extraordinary women and calling them my sisters.”

What would you say to a young AAPI dancer who one day aspires to be a Rockette?

LS: “We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us while also carrying the responsibility of those who will continue forward by standing on ours. Learning from those that have come before us gives us identity, knowledge and pride that will forever support us in our journey towards better representation. Remember our first Rockette of color who is also our first AAPI Rockette, Setsuko Maruhashi hired in 1985. Train hard and show up at your audition with pride, knowing every AAPI Rockette that has come before you is smiling as you carry forward our hopes and dreams with you.”

What are your hopes for diversity and inclusion within the Rockettes?

LS: “As co-founder and co-chair of the Rockettes of Color Alumnae, my hope is that we will work with the Rockettes organization to connect and mentor aspiring Rockettes of color so we can achieve our goal of a fully diversified and inclusive line on stage. I am hopeful as I see positive movement toward this dream.”

 Rose Mallare, the third AAPI Rockette.

Rose Mallare, third AAPI Rockette (1994-1997); member of Rockettes of Color Alumnae (ROCA)

How did it feel being one of the first AAPI Rockettes?

RM: “When I was first hired by Radio City in 1994, I didn’t realize I was ‘one of the first’ AAPI Rockettes but had suspected there weren’t many. I’d booked dance gigs professionally for Disney, Reebok, CBS, MTV, Prince’s Glam Slam and more from 1990-1994, and those casts were multi-racial both onstage and in production. In hindsight, receiving a contract as a Rockette was the hardest gig for me to accept, because I did anticipate the line to be mostly white. It was also my first musical theatre contract, which I was eager to try.

I decided to consult someone who I could trust on this matter, so I chose to speak with a Catholic priest at a local church in Los Angeles, CA. He reminded me that racism exists and has existed everywhere and that I had been dealing with racial discrimination my entire life. I basically had to ‘put my big girl pants on’ and consciously made a brave decision. I accepted the gig, but I was truly scared to board the flight alone.

And yes, my prayers were answered! I found a lifetime of friendships with Rockette sisters in Branson, Las Vegas, Detroit, as well as years later through the organization called Rockettes of Color Alumnae (ROCA). In 2020, I was thrilled to have found an invitation to join ROCA from both [former Rockettes] Sally Hong and Danielle Jolie. I’d known Sally from “The King and I” in Los Angeles, which we performed together in 1995. I’d also worked with both Danielle Jolie and [former Rockette] Marquee Munday as a Rockette in Las Vegas in 1995-1997. I was thrilled to be reunited with them on Facebook and Zoom meetings. It was through these ROCA meetings where I finally met Setsuko Maruhashi and Lainie Sakakura in 2020, fellow AAPI Rockettes who preceded me. I cried a little when I first saw all the beautiful ROCA faces on my screen. It was amazing for me to see fellow BIPOC and AAPI Rockettes I’d never met before – representation truly matters! I wished we had met a long time ago.”

What would you say to a young AAPI dancer who one day aspires to be a Rockette?

RM: “Dear aspiring AAPI Rockettes, someone in your dance career will tell you that you are ‘lucky’ to be there. It’s not all luck, it’s 99.999999% skill. If that someone doesn’t know the difference, they need to be corrected. Technical dance training is not acquired overnight; it takes years of daily practice to become a proficient dancer/entertainer. Be brave, be vocal and stand up – you got this!”

Sally Hong, the fourth AAPI Rockette.

Sally Hong, fourth AAPI Rockette (1996-2001); member of Rockettes of Color Alumnae (ROCA)                                

What was your first day as a Rockette like? Are there any special memories that come to mind?

SH: “Exciting might be a bit of an understatement. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. [Former director and choreographer] Linda Haberman was debuting her first new number which demanded precision, sharpness and stamina unseen yet in Rockette history. It felt like a huge honor to be entrusted with the choreography, but it carried a lot of pressure because we wanted to ensure we did it justice. It was also the first time I had worked with dancers who came from all over the country. I felt like I had landed in the big leagues.                                                   

During my second year, I remember repeatedly rehearsing a section in this number nicknamed ‘heinous’ by our assistant choreographer, because it was so intricate and ended with eye-high kicks when we were at our most tired. When we ran the number from the top and got to the eye-high kicks, our legs were only reaching knee-high when we were kicking as high as we could. I clearly remember the fire in my lungs and struggling to keep a smile on my face because I always rehearse trying to make it look effortless. It flashed through my mind that I might be let go, but thankfully all my Rockette sisters were equally struggling, and our cast remained intact. We can look back on that moment as a bonding experience.”

What did becoming a Rockette and performing on the line teach you?

SH: “As a dancer: collaboration and leadership. Prior to becoming Rockettes, we all put in numerous hours of training to build up technique and stamina. What is different about Rockette choreography is the precision of movement while simultaneously using our bodies to create dazzling formations. We can only be successful if we work with each other. At times, I was guiding off other dancers, and at other times as the dancer on the end, I would bring the whole line to a depth on the stage while they guided to me. It is a great responsibility because bringing them to the wrong depth would result in dancers falling off the stage trying to keep a formation.

As a person, my time with Radio City taught me to become comfortable being around people and talking on camera. I am very grateful for the numerous opportunities to meet the audience, interview on television and radio, mingle with celebrities, and teach precision workshops. As a Rockette, I have spent time with the rich and famous, as well as served Thanksgiving dinners to the homeless. Having met people from all walks of life, I have learned how much we are the same. We all worry if we are doing the right thing for our children, we all are trying to capture the holiday spirit to rejuvenate ourselves and families, and everybody loves the sparkly costumes!”

Looking back on your time as a Rockette, what are you most proud of?

SH: “I am very proud that I was part of a high-caliber, family-oriented show. The Radio City Rockettes are world-famous, even for people who are not in the entertainment field. I grew up in Hong Kong, and my friends and teachers who are now in the UK and Australia are familiar with the Rockettes. During my fourth season, the Rockettes performed for the second time on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.’ While we were getting changed, our director and choreographer called our assistant director/dance captain and said she thought our performance was the best the Rockettes have ever looked on television. To this day, I am so proud that we got her blessing. As a dancer, we always strive to bring the director/choreographer’s vision to life.”

What would you say to a young AAPI dancer who one day aspires to be a Rockette?

SH: “It is a huge honor to represent all Asian American Pacific Islanders in a show that people have made a family tradition to attend every year. I feel like it is my own little contribution to Americana. I became a U.S. citizen in 1992 and joined the line in 1996, fulfilling my parents’ dream of assimilating and thriving in my chosen field in the land of opportunity. Over the years, I have become more aware how important my little mark is. Each mark we make adds to our representation, which currently is less than 5% for AAPI live theater performers. Train vigorously so you will be ready when you get lucky. Take ballet, jazz and tap from multiple teachers at multiple levels so you learn to adapt to different styles and teaching methods. Use peripheral vision to make sure you are matching angles, counts and depths with your fellow dancers. Hit hard like you are dancing hip hop, because nothing is too sharp. Make sure your face is performing too!”

What are your hopes for diversity and inclusion within the Rockettes?

SH: “When I step out of the train at Times Square, every walk of life is represented. Nobody blinks an eye because it’s part of the hustle and bustle of New York City that gives it charm and makes it special. I hope someday that the line will look like this.”

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