For as long as she can remember, Sagan Rose spent Thanksgiving mornings in front of her family's television in Lexington, Ky., captivated by a troupe of leggy dancers performing synchronized movements and eye-high kicks guaranteed to wow any audience.
"I want to do that one day," the budding dancer told herself while watching the annual performance of the Radio City Rockettes in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Now 20, Rose is living her dream on the stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York City, smiling as she taps and kicks in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with America's most famous precision dance troupe.
"It's such an honor, such a legacy," says Rose of performing in the seven-week show that concludes Dec. 30. "Being a Rockette is the dream of a lot of little girls in a lot of hometowns."
Grace and glamour
More than 3,000 women have been part of the Rockette legacy of dancing discipline and artistic excellence since 1932 when the troupe performed at the grand opening of Radio City Music Hall, at the time the largest indoor theater in the world.
Founded as the Missouri Rockets in 1925 in St. Louis, the famed chorus line was choreographer Russell Markert's all-American answer to England's popular Tiller Girls dance troupe and was renamed the Rockettes in 1934 after moving to New York and making Radio City their permanent home.
From the legendary theater, Markert oversaw his "dancing daughters" until his retirement in 1971, insisting on an image of grace and glamour, and turning the Rockettes into a symbol for both Radio City and New York City. They presented four shows a day, 365 days a year, for more than 50 years between movie screenings.
"Russell treated us like we were his daughters," says Patty DeCarlo Grantham, 69, of Inglewood, N.J., and a Rockette from 1958 to 1971. "He expected us to present ourselves with dignity and pride, whether we were on stage or off. We never walked into the music hall that we weren't dressed decently and usually wearing makeup."
For decades, Rockette shows were tremendously popular, particularly at Easter and Christmas when patrons lined up for blocks to see the world-renowned troupe. Then in 1978, as Radio City attendance declined as crime in New York City increased, the Rockettes campaigned to save the famed theater from closure, leading to a format change that replaced movie screenings with live concerts and shows. The Rockettes endured but shifted to a Christmas season-only schedule, debuting its 90-minute Christmas Spectacular in 1979. Tours to other cities began in 1994, the first in Branson, Mo.
Kicking it up a notch
Today, the Rockettes work under the direction of Linda Haberman, a former Broadway dancer who in 2006 became the first female director and choreographer of the Christmas Spectacular. She has maintained the Rockette tradition of precise synchronization and intricate formations, best showcased in the classic "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," choreographed by Markert in 1933. However, she also has added stylized movements and dances to make the Rockettes look more sensual and less robotic.
"The dances today are much more demanding in terms of technique, athleticism and artistic interpretation," Haberman says.
To become a Rockette, leotard-clad dancers from across the nation converge on New York each April in hopes of filling 170 Radio City and touring show spots.
"Auditions are pretty intimidating," says Joanna Richardson, 24, of Stone Mountain, Ga. (pop. 7,145), of her tryout in Radio City's hallowed rehearsal hall. "You walk into the space knowing that hundreds of Rockettes have danced there over the years."
Not everyone can become a Rockette. Each dancer must measure upliterallyto a height of 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-10½, and demonstrate proficiency in tap, jazz, ballet and modern dance. However, they also must combine technique with personal pizzazzall while blending into an ensemble cast of 36 dancers.
Richardson landed her spot in 2005 after her fourth audition. Her mother, who manages a dance studio in Atlanta, was the first person she called. "I think we screamed on the phone for a good 30 seconds," she recalls. "It was amazing to know that all the hard work had finally paid off."
After being selected, dancers endure a month of grueling rehearsals to perfect every step, every stance before opening night of the show. "When you step out on that stage and you're really a Rockette, it's incredible," Richardson says.
With their constant smiles, the Rockettes make their movements look effortless, though they're in fact a series of a precisely choreographed dances that require rigorous training and flawless execution.
While performing their trademark eye-high kicks, for example, the women appear to grab each other's waist, but actually they barely touch to avoid disturbing each other's balance.
"Right arm high, left arm low. You support yourself," confides Kimmie Louwsma, 28, in her ninth year as a Rockette. "Then it's jump, kick, jump, kick. We probably do a thousand kicks every day. You don't think about it; your body just does it."
Guiding every move are colored lines and numbers on the stage floor that help the dancers line up with military-like precision. "You're constantly on a number," adds Louwsma, of Winter Park, Fla. (pop. 24,090). "It's quite intricate."
The troupe's illusion of uniform height is achieved by placing the tallest dancers in the center and gradually decreasing the height of the other women on both sides.
Activity off stage is just as well choreographed as what audiences see on stage, as dancers rush to their assigned spots to dress for their next number. "It's one costume off, another on and back you go," Louwsma says of the eight costume changes per show.
Little wonder the Rockettes are called the hardest working women in show business. "We consider ourselves performing athletes," says Elaine Winslow-Redmond, 41, the troupe's athletic trainer and a former Rockette herself. "You have to have stamina and endurance to do six hours of high-intensity exercise each day. Football players don't even get that kind of a workout in a game."
For women who have lined up as Rockettes over the last eight decades, the hard work is a shared experience among a unique sisterhood that creates fond memories both on stage and off.
"Those relationships mean everything to me," says Grantham, president of the 350-member Rockette Alumni Association. "I'm 69 now, but when I'm talking to my Rockette girlfriends, I'm 18, 19 or 20 years old again. It's a huge gift."
"People probably don't think 40 girls can get along with each other, but we really do," Rose says of the current crop of Radio City Rockettes. "We really depend on each other. We are like a family."
By the numbers at Radio City:
1,200 pairs of shoes
1,400 pairs of pantyhose
121 crew members
40 orchestra members
One 7-ton double-decker bus
350 loads of laundry each week