‘Tis The Season To Be A Rockette: Part 1
By Jill Wolins
Having been a Radio City Rockette on and off for ten years, I consider myself lucky that I was hired by four different Director/Choreographers. Each one created a different atmosphere and had a slightly different mission statement for the show. Being a Rockette and a member of this iconic “lady gang” is a tremendous honor and this comes with a great amount of responsibility.
The responsibility includes upholding a timeless All-American image while delivering the goods. What goods? Performing numerous 90-minute shows including an uncountable amount of kicks and usually at least 9 costume changes. Quick changes, of course.
This time we are talking about the infamous Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Why? Because this show has been running close to 100 years, and could be considered the longest running NYC show by far. And who wouldn’t want to talk about a portion of life inside the infamous Radio City Music Hall? Nicknamed “The Showplace of the Nation,” this theater has art deco inspired decor that was declared a city landmark in 1978. It seats close to 6,000. The proscenium extends with grand radiating arches to encompass the theater with a warm glow creating a sense of intimacy within the cavernous theater. Need I say more? Because I can… The stage is 144 feet wide, consists of three hydraulic elevators, orchestra pit elevator, and gigantic turntable. Boom.
Already, upon getting the gig as a Rockette, before learning one kick, any gal is blown away by the thought of being a member of what Wikipedia considers to be the resident dance company of the Radio City Music Hall.
In case you are wondering who or what The Rockettes are, I can start by saying that it is a coveted job of very high status in the dance world. Especially in the genres of theater and precision dance.
The line-up consists of 36 well-rounded dancers between the heights of 5’6” to 5’10”. The Rockettes were founded in 1925, as the Missouri Rockets, and was modeled after the Tiller Girls of Manchester, England, who were popular in the 1890s. Then the line of tap dancing beauties moved to New York City to establish themselves by participating in the Opening Night Celebration of the Radio City Music Hall in 1932, where they have since remained. Today they can be considered the most glamorous and well known precision dance company in the world. They are especially known for their high kicks and precision kick lines that have been wowing audiences for years. They are also mostly known for their glamorous Christmas Spectacular, spreading joy and happiness throughout the Holiday Season.
The rehearsal process is …well…less than glamorous.
There are so many unforeseen factors that contribute to the first timer’s learning process. If you are lucky enough to get the position for more than one year, the process gets more tolerable, as one knows what to expect. For some ladies, the first hurdle is learning to dance in high heeled character shoes for hours. Many get gigantic open blisters that need to be taped and cared for by professionals. This is usually a rookie problem.
The next less-than-glamorous factor is actually learning the choreography. It is truly the hugest brain strain. I can’t imagine any Rockette disagreeing with the fact that the rehearsal process is the most intense of all jobs, including company and Broadway work. Not only are there numerous “numbers” and routines to learn, but one must move precisely with ladies who may have been performing the same choreography for years. As dancers, we often learn to be individual artists and to move organically to establish our own personal style. It is a good idea to check that personal style, along with your ego, at the door upon entering this rehearsal hall. Oh, and learning the moves is only the beginning. One great secret to the perfection of the precision dance company is the number line and grid. The stage is marked with specific lines and numbers designed to keep the over-all look perfect and symmetrical. So every movement is packaged with a specific place to stand. And not only on a line. You may have to “heel” the line, as your heels will be just in front of the line, or “toe” the line, when your toes touch that back edge of the line. It gets better.
Every single time a Rockette steps, she has a specific allotted space to travel.
You may step to the right or left one or two numbers, or forward or back a half of or full “depth.” Is your head spinning? Codified is an understatement. It is clear that a Rockette must possess a level of intelligence to hack such a process. And to execute with grace.
So, as a new member of the “Rox,” your feet are killing you and your brain is fried. Now let’s get to the kicks. It is agreeable to anyone who has seen the Rockettes that the gals make it all look easy and simple. It is one thing to learn the kicks and establish the proper timing to match the veterans. One may think that it is more about hoisting that leg up there, but any Rockette knows that the real work is in getting the leg down in time to stay together and on tempo. The hamstrings take a beating from pulling that leg down quickly without plopping the foot on the floor. In addition, we are not talking about one kick line or kick sequence. We are talking about hours upon hours of rehearsal perfecting these suckers. If and when you live through studio time, it is a relief to get technical rehearsals on the “Great Stage.”
Tech time at the Music Hall, especially if it is your first season as a Rockette, is a dream come true. Many Rockettes have to be poked to stay “with it” because staring from the stage out to a gigantic house with three mezzanines is intoxicating. To experience the use of the stage elevators, turntable, LED wall, and huge props like the infamous NYC tour bus is overwhelming. It’s magical to hear the live music from the orchestra pit. Getting into the expensive and glamorous costumes makes it all feel real after make-believing in the rehearsal room for months. And something unique to the Christmas Show (as we all call it) is how both casts get to see exactly how the shows looks on stage. The Blue Cast can see the Gold Cast on stage and vice versa. One actually gets to see the fruit of their labor! My favorite part of the tech rehearsal process, after my first year of course, was running around the house with my friends. It is just so big and beautiful, and you feel more special than Elouise at the Plaza. We would get to spend a majority of our time in the house wearing sweats and fuzzy slippers playing games with our dancer friends. Every time I return to the Music Hall I remember doing countless cartwheels down the aisles. Shhh, Don’t tell anyone.
Continue to ‘Tis The Season To Be A Rockette: Part 2
Join TheatreArtLife to access unlimited articles, our global career center, discussion forums, and professional development resource guide. Your investment will help us continue to ignite connections across the globe in live entertainment and build this community for industry professionals. Learn more about our subscription plans.
Love to write or have something to say? Become a contributor with TheatreArtLife. Join our community of industry leaders working in artistic, creative, and technical roles across the globe. Visit our CONTRIBUTE page to learn more or submit an article.