As we get closer to the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump on January 20, it seems we’re hearing more about celebrities and performers who won’t be attending the inauguration than about those who will. Notable artists such as Elton John and Celine Dion have declined invitations to perform. Canadian singer David Foster even took to Instagram to clear up rumors that he would be appearing at ceremony.
The Trump inaugural committee has managed to secure a few performers, though. Jackie Evancho, a sixteen-year-old singer who got her start on America’s Got Talent will perform the national anthem. Over the holidays, it was announced that the Radio City Rockettes will also be performing at the inauguration, but the news of their participation was quickly followed by concerns from dancers who were upset about the booking (it was later clarified that participation in the event is elective). Meanwhile, the Texas State Strutters—a college dance team that applied to perform in the inaugural parade last January—announced their participation with excitement a few days before Christmas.
After the Strutters shared the news on social media, their accounts received mix responses. Although some have responded about the “honor” of what the Strutters referred to as a “once in lifetime performance opportunity” others have criticized the group for performing in the most controversial inauguration in recent history. A few users who responded to the @TXSTStrutters account on Twitter reported later being blocked, and as of now, the account seems to have been deactivated.
So on a smaller scale, the Strutters have found themselves thrown into a similar situation as the Rockettes. Matthew Flores, a university spokesperson, emphasized that the Strutters are an “apolitical” dance group. “If people choose to look into [their participation] and make it something more politically motivated than it is, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “But again, the Strutters are a dance company, they’re outstanding performers, they have commitment to their craft and they act as goodwill ambassadors to the university, and this is precisely what they’re doing here.”
Unlike the Rockettes, none of the Strutters have backed out of their commitment to perform in the inauguration, though they all have the option to, Flores said. The backlash, apparently, hasn’t been enough to influence the college dancers, who Flores says made the commitment to participate nearly a year ago and will be paying for the cost of travel and accommodations of this trip out of pocket rather than using university funds.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that’s the way it’s being viewed by the vast majority of the Strutters who have said anything at all about it, either through social media or in conversations,” Flores said. “And to be able to take part in an activity such as this, it’s high profile and it gives them an opportunity to perform for a very wide audience as representatives of Texas State University, is in keeping with the practice that the Strutters routinely go through, so this is why they’re around, this is why they’re an organization. They are here to spread goodwill, they are there to be ambassadors of the university, they are there to continue to hone their craft as performers.”
But it’s hard to cast this simply as an opportunity for exposure, or even just as being part of a tradition. James Dolan, the Madison Square Garden executive chairman who made the decision to book the Rockettes in the inauguration, tried to explain the decision away during a meeting with the concerned dancers. “We’re celebrating a new president,” he said. “Not necessarily this president.” But you can’t separate an inauguration from the person being inaugurated.
It’s unsurprising that the Strutters are receiving so much backlash from their own university, considering that Trump’s election caused derision on Texas State’s campus. After the election, fliers calling for the “university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage” to be arrested and tortured were posted around campus by a group calling themselves the “Texas State Vigilantes.” The election, the fliers, and a surge of racially-charged insults on campus made Texas State one of the many campuses where students held anti-Trump protests days after the election.
And yet, “ambassadors of the university” will perform at Trump’s inauguration. It might be too much to put this sort of pressure on a group of dancers, but if they are indeed university ambassadors, then they have some accountability to the university they represent, including fellow classmates as well as faculty and staff who feel marginalized by Trump’s rhetoric and unsafe on campus following the election. The Strutters may not have foreseen applying to participate in the inaugural parade as a controversial decision last January, but, at the very least, choosing to go forward with the performance is not the apolitical move the university’s attempting to depict it as. The Strutters may just be college dancers hoping to advance and continue their dance careers, but it’s definitely worth considering at what costs they’re willing to do so.