Tall Order

November 23, 2009

Dazzling in costumes embellished with more than 3,000 Swarovski crystals apiece, 36 statuesque dancers descend a grand staircase. The

legendary Radio City Rockettes take their places for the final number, “Let Christmas Shine.” After 75 years with mostly minor choreographic changes in the Radio City Christ­mas Spectacular, the show was revamped in 2007 to appeal to a 21st-century audience, including this new finale.


Still intact, however, are some of the celebrated set pieces, like “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” that made the Rockettes a household name. “It needs to look like one person dancing, not 36,” says Ashley Ayer, a 10-year Rockette veteran. Everything down to the angle of each leg and arm must be identical.

Before the women in that line were known as the Rockettes, they were the “Missouri Rockets,” performing in St. Louis circa 1925. The precision group was discovered by showman S.L. (“Roxy”) Rothafel and renamed the “Roxyettes.” They moved to their new home in Rockefeller Center’s art deco palace, Radio City Music Hall, in 1932. On opening night, they shared the stage with 17 different acts, including Martha Graham. Soon they became the star attraction.

As dancers, the Rockettes must achieve absolute unison, a feat that has made them famous. The New York troupe consists of 80 dancers, all between 5′ 6″ and 5′ 10″, who can perform up to five shows a day. While the New York edition remains the most famous, the Rockettes began performing the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in locales outside New York for the first time in 1994. This year, productions of the show will appear in 36 cities, including Montreal, Philadelphia and Washington, though the touring troupes use far fewer dancers, either 24 or 22.

Many young dancers who see the Rockettes dream about being a part of the kickline one day. For a few, this dream comes true, and they hold on to it for as long as possible. For others who make it, it’s a career accomplishment, but they will move on to other endeavors. All, how­ever, are dancers, first and always.

Name: Ashley Ayer
Hometown: Owensboro, KY

Rockette Years: 10

When Ashley Ayer saw the Rockettes perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when she was little, she knew she wanted to be a part of the glamour and tradition that the troupe represented. She began dancing at the age of 9, going on to the University of Arizona to earn a BFA in dance. After performing with both Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and River North Chicago Dance Company, she auditioned for the Rockettes in Chicago and made it the first time. She danced in that city’s show for three years, then toured for three seasons before ending up in the New York show. “People see my face light up when I talk about being a Rockette,” Ayer says.

But it’s not about just showing up and smiling; the Rockettes work hard. “We are known for our famous kicks, so we have to work on our flexibility and strength to remain in that perfectly straight line,” Ayer says. “A lot of us practice yoga and Pilates to help maintain our balance and synchronization. And we gain so much stamina just by rehearsing our routines.” Take the “12 Days of Christmas,” a 12-minute tap routine. “Some dancers even use the elliptical machine before rehearsals start so they are prepared,” Ayers says. “We also do push-ups for the soldier fall in the ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.’ It takes a lot of arm strength to maintain that domino effect.”

Ayer feels that being in the Rockettes is her biggest accomplishment. “With the Rockettes, as long as you are physically fit and meet all the requirements, there is no maximum age,” she says. “I think it would be hard to give up.”

Name: Afra Hines
Hometown: Miami, FL

Rockette Years: 5

Afra Hines began dancing when she was 4 years old, and by 13 had decided that she wanted to make it her career. She and her mother moved to New York from Miami so she could attend Professional Performing Arts High School. Since then, she has danced numerous roles in shows from Broadway to Radio City.

Hines auditioned to be a Rockette in the Denver production of the Christmas Spectacular without having seen the show before. But when she made the cut, she realized she had become part of an enduring tradition. And once she finally saw the show, she was impressed. She went on to perform for a holiday season in Chicago and after a year off, joined the New York contingent.

Several decades ago, a color bar prevented dancers like Hines from joining the troupe. In 1986, a Japanese woman danced in the New York production; the first African American Rockette was hired a year later. However, today the Rockettes welcome diversity, including women like Hines, who is half black and half white. “I take a lot of pride in representing women of color,” she says. Since 2008, Hines has performed in the racially diverse ensemble of Broadway’s In the Heights, and hopes to return to the show after the Christmas season.

Hines’ versatility helps keep her consistently working, but being a Rockette has some special challenges. “When you first become a Rockette, you have to learn all of the placement,” she says. “It is not just about your own dancing, but the formations that we create.”

The best example is “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” which has been in the show since the beginning and happens to be Hines’ favorite routine. What the audience sees is 36 life-size wooden soldier toys, dressed in wide white pants, red jackets and tall black hats, who move in one close-to-perfect straight line. During the routine, the line breaks off to create sharp shapes. The number ends with a blast from a cannon that collapses the line, each Rockette falling into the arms of the soldier behind her.

What the dancers actually do is more intense. “We learn each different position,” Hines says. “You can have your head to the side and be looking to the side, or your face to the side but eyes looking at the audience or your cheek to the audience. We have it down to a science.”

All that precision can be exhausting, so the dancers have found ways to keep going between shows. Most days each Rockette performs between four and five shows, though on Saturdays they can do as many as six. “I make sure to take a nap, which keeps me awake and refreshed. Some girls shower and pretend it is a new day,” Hines says. “But for me, there is nothing like seeing Radio City Music Hall from the stage. It’s breathtaking. And when I see the audience, it automatically brings me back to life.”

Name: Synthia Link
Hometown: Long Island, NY

Rockette Years: 3

For Synthia Link, becoming a Rockette was a childhood dream. “At my dance studio, my teacher was a Rockette, and she encouraged me,” she says. Link trained in ballet, jazz, and tap since she was 3 years old and has a special feeling for what it means to be a Rockette. “She is a role model for young girls; someone who is disciplined and passionate,” she says. “With all those things, there is no way you could perform this job and not enjoy yourself at the same time.”

Rockette hopefuls audition every year at the end of April. Dancers must be able to demonstrate proficiency in tap, jazz, ballet, and modern. They must also display a radiance that will translate to the back rows of the theater. About 400 to 500 dancers audition every year in New York, Link says, though if they are chosen, they may end up in one of the touring companies. Auditions are also held in Los Angeles. After several cuts, the women who make it to the next day get to show off their kicks. Then it’s all about waiting for the call. “It is always nerve-racking,” Link says.

Link has performed in regional productions of No, No, Nanette and The Producers, but being a Rockette is different. “It’s choreographed down to where our pinkies are!” she says. “There is a pattern marked on the stage, and that’s what makes our routine so clean. We are as detailed as toes on 12 and heels on 13.” But it doesn’t stop when rehearsal is over. “We write down our numbers and lines, and we study because if one person isn’t on her mark, the whole picture is off.”

Unfortunately, the hard work is not always the most difficult part of the job. The past two years, Link toured as a Rockette, and her family was not able to join her during the holidays. She has learned to handle it, but being in the New York show makes a visit from relatives much easier this year. “Being a Rockette is strenuous and stressful,” she says. “But I have learned my body can do anything if I put my mind to it. It is amazing to see what your potential is.”

Brianne Carlon is a freelance writer living in Youngstown, OH.

Photo by Rachel Papo.