The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes are one of the most memorable parts of the New York City holidays. More than that, they have been a part of it for the last 75 years, performing every Christmas season as part of a legendary holiday extravaganza.
The Rockettes are the dance world's equivalent of a precision drill team in the military - showing off their tremendous physical discipline in terms of being able to dance in perfect synchronization.
The Rockettes were the creation of Russell Markert, who after seeing a production of the English "Tiller Girls," envisioned a troupe of dancers who were taller, had longer legs, higher and more dance technique. As a result, the specifications for being a Rockette are almost the same now as they were when he formed them in St. Louis back in 1925. The original "Missouri Rockets" had to be between 5'6" and 5'10 ½ " tall and show proficiency in several dance disciplines (including tap and jazz).
The Rockettes became the successors to the traditional Broadway dance lines of the Zeigfield Follies, and took the art form to an unparalleled level of sophistication and technique. Many dance critics and others have suggested that having them as only part of the Holiday Spectacular was a waste of the amazing talent within the 200 dancers making up the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
The goal of the Rockettes (as they became known when they moved to Radio City Music Hall in 1936) was a strange combination of vibrant energy and stage presence combined with an abstraction of bodies and movement. The trademark kickline, for example, is less about sex appeal and more about moving in complete synchronization through extremes of movement. Combining this with the five shows a day during the Christmas season means that every Rockette has to be in fantastic physical shape.
The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes Today
Yet many of the dancers are not "professional" in the sense that they actually dance for a living. The Rockettes today are made up of women from all walks of life, from stay-at-home moms to students to law and medical professionals. All of them balance their work life with the demands of rehearsal and performing to earn the title of "Rockette."
Until 1987, there were no women of color invited to become part of the line, a policy justified in the minds of the producers because it would break up the consistency and appearance of the dance line. Thankfully that policy has been repealed and now there are Rockettes reflecting the diversity of the city that is their home.
Currently the Rockettes offer dance classes called "the Rockette Experience" and also "the Rockette Summer Intensive" which trains dancers in the precision technique. Twenty-six students of these programs have gone on to become Rockettes themselves, but the goal is more experiential. Like the dancers themselves, the focus is more on meeting and overcoming the exciting challenges of this type of dance. The intensives are taught by current Rockettes and a Rockette director/choreographer and are open to dancers age 10 and up with training in jazz, tap, and ballet.
The demands of the performance schedule have been expanding as well. Beyond the holiday spectacular, the dance troupe has performed at other major events, including:
- Super Bowl XXII in 1988, as part of the halftime show
- President Bush's 2001 Inauguration
- 2004 Tony Awards, performing with Hugh Jackman
Many events in New York City, such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, feature performances by the Rockettes. They also appear regularly on late-night TV shows such as David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. In 2002 they began a touring show, playing to sold-out audiences in Minneapolis, Dallas, and Phoenix, and the tour has expanded since then.
With such a rich history, the women who have been Rockettes have become a sisterhood of shared experience in dance. They serve as role models for each other and their heritage, and examples to dancers all over the world.