Behind the scenes as the Rockettes rehearse for the big annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular
It’s a little weird seeing a Rockette, in civilian territory.
Reporting for rehearsals on a recent chilly fall morning in a midtown Manhattan church basement, you almost expect them to arrive in packs, or strutting in lockstep. Instead, they trickle in sporadically, one at a time, in their street clothes. Some wear big sunglasses, to hide their morning eyes. Others sip wearily from cardboard cups of coffee, their hair pulled back into unkempt pony tails. One of them trips descending the outside flight of stairs that leads to the basement door, where a stone-faced security guard nods, in allowing each of them to enter.
Despite the Rockettes’ glamorous, iconic image on stage, seeing them in this way serves as a gentle reminder: Beneath all that glitters, they’re still just working stiffs, like the rest of us. They still put their leotards on, one leg hole at a time, like anybody else.
It is weeks before Halloween, let alone Thanksgiving. And while Christmas is the last thing on most people’s minds this particular mid-October morning, it is first and foremost on theirs. They are already two weeks into daily rehearsals for “The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes,” opening this week and running through Jan. 2. And let’s just say that from the looks of things during a press preview of the rehearsal process, this is NOT an easy job.
Now all in black leotards, leggings and high heals, all 40 Rockettes are lined up facing floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the cold, cavernous, gymnasium-like rehearsal space below St. Paul the Apostle Church just off Columbus Circle. One of several dance captains, who assists show director/choreographer Julie Branam, stands almost like a conductor before a full orchestra. She yells: “Five, six, seven, eight!” A piano player hits it, and the ladies suddenly light up.
They pivot, bend, turn, twist and stand on pointed toes in absolute precision while rehearsing one of the show’s crowd-pleasers, “Christmas in New York.” And while to the untrained eye it all looks flawless, to Branam, this just isn’t gonna cut it.
Either she, or one of her assistants, stops them every so often to give them adjustments. “Make sure you have your heads back at 5, and you have your palms on your shoulders,” one of them shouts. “Five, six, seven, eight!” They do it again, this time without musical accompaniment. Again, they are stopped. “We square our shoulders off on seven, nice and high on three, and we can hinge that around on eight!”
It all sounds like a foreign language to the outsider but the dancers seem to know exactly what she’s talking about, integrating the called-upon adjustments into their bodies with each successive try.
“Make sure your fingertips are pointed all the way up to the ceiling, and you’re opening up your chest here!” one of them shouts. The Rockettes take another crack at it. Again, they are interrupted. “You’re up on three, you’re down on four, you’re back on five. Nice and crisp and on an angle!”
Some of the dancers appear to be getting a little breathless and sweaty as the rehearsal goes on. “Remember how you thought it was cold in here, this morning?” Branam cracks. They all laugh, through their panting.
This is just one small part of one of many numbers in the Christmas Spectacular. With none of the dancers taking notes, one wonders how on earth they can possibly remember everything they’re told? According to Branam, it just becomes second nature. “A lot of it is muscle memory,” she says during a break. “This is as much mental gymnastics as it is physical gymnastics.”
There are two casts of 36 that alternate shows, with four swings. Each will rehearse three weeks at the church, and three weeks on the Radio City stage. Branam arrived at 9 a.m. this particular morning and will be there rehearsing either Rockettes or other cast members in the show until 9 p.m. that night.
Though grueling, the Christmas Spectacular has been good to her. While a dancer’s life can be a tough one, with work sporadic and relatively early retirement, the Rockettes have been her annuity. She was a Rockette herself for 13 years, directed the Christmas Spectacular on the road from 1998 to 2013 (a few of those years she was both directing AND a Rockette) and has been directing the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City since 2014. “It’s a great job,” she says.
Doesn’t Upper Saddle River resident Nicole Baker know it. She has been a Rockette for 11 seasons, both to fulfill her love of dance and to help support her family. “I have three kids,” she says. It seems hard to believe, given her youthful looks, her athletic physique and her exhausting schedule. One might usually think of the life of a dancer as that of a gypsy. A loner. An artist who must devote her life to her craft, even it means sacrificing a family. But Baker, 35, is living proof you really can have two lives.
“When I am here, I am a Rockette. When I am home, I am a mom,” she says. “I get up, I get them to school, I come here, and I rehearse six hours a day, six days a week,” she says. “The choreography changes slightly every year.” Either way, no matter how many years you do it, it’s like starting all over again, come the next year. “That’s the rehearsal process,” she says, with a laugh. “We’re all exhausted.” Time off the dance floor is spent nursing their bodies in ice baths, or warm whirlpools.
True, it takes her away from home a lot. “But one day, they will appreciate this,” she says, with a laugh. It must be especially rough having the thick of the Christmas season be her busiest time. Her crazy performance schedule sometimes has her doing as many as four shows a day. Is it especially hard being kept away from home so much, during the Christmas season? Not really, she says. “I’m Jewish, so…”
Megan Levinson, of North Caldwell, is in her seventh season as a Radio City Rockette. “I’ve been dancing since I was 7…It’s a dream come true,” she says. “But it’s difficult.” She notes that along with the Christmas show, there are year-round promotional events, like make-up demonstrations. At 26, does she worry about being in a business where your body has such a short shelf life? “Everyone is different,” she says. “I definitely want to maintain my body so I can do this for as long as possible.”
What’s one of the biggest occupational hazards? No, not foot injuries. It’s learning how to high kick your away around mounds of poop the live camels occasionally unleash during the Living Nativity scene. Baker shrugs it off as something she’s just used to, by now. “This is live theater, after all,” she says, with a laugh.
“No one in the audience even notices when it happens.”