The intensive dancers learn what it takes to move specifically enough for a kickline. Photo courtesy MSG Entertainment

What It's Like To Attend the Rockettes' Summer Intensive

On a humid summer day in midtown Manhattan, construction goes on outside the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Inside, another type of building goes on: In separate basement studios, two groups of 40 dancers focus their attention on their instructors. It's the Rockettes' summer intensive, a rare chance for students to work with professional Rockettes, not to mention Julie Branam, their director and choreographer.

Rockette Bailey Callahan demonstrates in front of one group. Hers is a classic Rockette story. She attended their intensive every summer from 2009 to 2011; being a Rockette was her dream. Then, in 2012, she was asked to attend the program's invitational week. At the end, she received her Rockette contract.


The invitational week has proved a path to the Radio City stage for more than a few Rockettes. Around 1,200 women ages 14 and up audition each year for the summer intensive. Up to 640 dancers are placed in one of the program's seven repeating weeks, or in the invitational week. That week amps up the intensive's already rigorous pace and is geared toward semi-professional and professional dancers.

The intensive offers a rare chance to learn directly from Julie Branam. Photo courtesy MSG Entertainment

Branam, a former Rockette herself, looks for several elements in all summer intensive students. "We want a strong ballet foundation and the ability to handle many styles. I'm also watching for willingness to take in details. You may want to kick as high as you can and reach your face. But can you do what I ask—kick just to eyeline as the Rockettes do? We need dancers who can be specific and take directions, even if they are used to doing it differently."

For the invitational week, Branam is looking for students with more polish. "Are you comfortable in the room?" she asks. "Are you listening to what I'm saying? Are you executing the signature Rockettes strong arms instead of letting them float?"

Branam notes that neither the invitational week nor the regular intensive is an audition for the troupe, but they can be a great place to demonstrate skill and readiness.

Students learn the challenges of precision dancing. Photo courtesy MSG Entertainment

Each intensive week is run like Rockettes rehearsals, working for 80 minutes at a time, then resting for 10, plus an hour for lunch. Mornings start at 9:30 am with a review of the previous day's choreography, followed by a Rockette-led group warm-up consisting of planks, strength and core work mixed with jazz-flavored sequences.

"We did a tap drawback section across the floor that dancers then used in the 42nd Street number," explains Branam. "We're always working on integrating technique."

Students spend the rest of the day on choreography, with pieces used as workshops for Rockette trademarks: "muscled" arms, whiplash footwork, precise torso angles, and, of course, those kicks.

By Wednesday, students have all the choreography they'll perform at their showcase on Friday. A workshop with the Rockettes' athletic trainer on body care, injuries and maintenance, a Q&A with the Rockette teachers, and a "crazy legging day" round out the week's activities.

Angles are key. Photo courtesy MSG Entertainment

The invitational week has a similar structure, but greater challenges. This year, that included learning "Sleigh Ride," a number featuring the Rockettes as Santa's reindeer. "It's super-stylized and difficult," says Branam. "It has the most details: tilt of the head, where antlers are, where elbows are."

All the choreography the invitational students learn is taught much faster, and some numbers include far more kicks in longer phrases of kicklines, as well as more changes in formation and weight shifts.

During the week, Branam may glean what she needs to make an offer. As it happened, this past summer three dancers proved they were up to all the requirements, and Branam offered them contracts.

All the students, whether in the invitational or the intensive weeks, learn about Rockette teamwork. "Togetherness is an essential part of being a Rockette," says Katelyn Gaffney, a Rockette instructor who also attended summer intensives before finally earning her contract. "It's dancing together, breathing together, having fun together. Most students aren't used to dancing so closely, just two feet apart. It's hard to dance full-out but stay contained. But practicing how to stay together, how to be sharp but not hold back, that's so special."

Rockette Katelyn Gaffney attended summer intensives before earning her contract

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021