From November 29 to December 8, the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach hosts the world famous Radio City Rockettes and their Christmas Spectacular. The Rockettes were first formed in 1925 by choreographer Russell Markert and, at the time, were known as the Missouri Rockets. Following a move to NYC, the dance troupe became the Rockettes and performed at the opening of Radio City Music Hall in 1932. The first Christmas Spectacular was staged in 1933 and has since become the cornerstone of the Rockette repertoire. PBI.com talked with two current Rockettes, Jeanne Cargill and Laura Iberg, about their experiences with the organization and the Christmas Spectacular show.
PBI.com: When did you first decide you wanted to be a Rockette?
Laura Iberg: I started dancing at the young age of 3 and I did that all throughout school. I first saw the Rockettes live when they came to The Fox in St. Louis, Missouri, and ever since then I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be a Rockette!’ I’d seen them growing up at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but after I saw them live I was like ‘this is my goal and I’m going to work at it.’ And my dance instructor growing up said ‘You have such long legs, that’s what you should do!’ So, I kept auditioning and it took me four tries [before] I finally got the call.
Jeanne Cargill: I danced from a young age as well and I really loved tap, and the Rockettes really do some good tapping. So, that was my first draw to them when I was younger. And then, as an adult, I participated in their Summer Intensive program; you spend about five days training with a Rockette, learning bits of choreography, and you get a behind-the-scenes idea of what really is entailed in the job.
What is the audition process like?
LI: You have to do a jazz combination, we tap and we kick and then we usually will do another jazz combination as well. It’s a two-day process; they have the open call and then they make quite a few cuts throughout the day depending on how many women show up. Usually there’s at least four to five, possibly 600 ladies wrapped around Radio City, so it’s quite a long day that first day. Then, we come back the second day for the call back and they videotape us. And then, we wait until we hopefully get a call.
What is the height requirement to be a Rockette? I read that it’s about 5’6” to 5’10“?
JC: 5’10.5″, you were so close!
I also read that you stick the taller Rockettes in the middle when you do the kick line so that everyone appears to be the same height?
JC: It’s our first day of rehearsals, we take off our shoes and we line up from the very tallest to the very less tall — we don’t say shortest. And we file stage left, stage right, so that gives you your less tall girls at the end and your taller girls in the middle, and that’s your spot for the season.
LI: [That gives] the illusion we’re all the same height.
Now, tell me about the kicks.
LI: Well, we’re known for our famous eye-high kicks. So, basically, you’re looking out and up towards [the back of] the theater. We might have certain lights we might look at for a focus point, but then you want your toe to reach your eye. And that’s how we all maintain that perfect eye-high level.
What is your daily rehearsal like?
JC: We rehearse six days a week, six hours a day. It starts usually end of September or beginning of October, depending upon which troupe you are in. We’ll do that for about a month and a half; it’s a pretty long rehearsal process because everything has to be just so.
You mentioned different troupes, how is it broken up?
JC: We have two lines of 36 in New York, because in the height of December the schedule can get quite lengthy, and they’ll have shows going on from 8 in the morning through 8 in the evening. So, we share the schedule with two casts. And then on the road—
LI: We have one touring city group that will go to Atlanta, West Palm Beach and Tampa, and then we have another group that’s sent down to Nashville.
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Is the Christmas Spectacular your favorite performance of the year?
LI: It’s absolutely amazing. Christmas is a wonderful time of year in itself, and to be able to perform with the Christmas Spectacular, it’s truly an honor to be part of the legendary line of the Rockettes. When you’re on the stage and you can see the audience members gleaming with joy, it really is like ‘oh my gosh, I get to do this for a living!’
Do the numbers in the Christmas Spectacular change every year?
JC: We keep traditional favorites. We have some fan favorites like The Living Nativity, we have The Parade of the Wood Soldier, and those have both been a part of the show since its inception in 1933, so that’s an amazing piece of history. We also have new sections in the show just to keep it fresh and fun. [This year we have a number that] features a 50-foot LED screen that helps Santa take you to Times Square and his workshops at the North Pole. There’s also a life-size double-decker bus, and the Rockettes take the audience on a tour through Manhattan.
What are your favorite numbers to dance in the Christmas Spectacular?
LI: My favorite part of the Christmas Spectacular is Let Christmas Shine. It’s our final number, and we enter on a staircase and we’re bedazzled in these gorgeous costumes with over 3,000 crystals a piece.
JC: My favorite is New York at Christmas and it’s about mid-way through the show. We’re on that double-decker bus and it’s a real Big Apple Tours; we’re on the bus, we hop off the bus, we go through the city, and the LED screen literally takes you everywhere. It’s a fun visual for the audience and it’s very playful for the Rockettes.
What is your favorite costume?
LI: My favorite costume is actually our 12 Days of Christmas costume. It reminds me of a cute little candy cane. It’s a red- and white-striped bodice with a gold tutu skirt. At the top, it’s mesh and covered in crystals as well, so it stays up while we’re tapping. It’s super cute and it definitely says holiday.
JC: I love our reindeer costume. It’s a brown, crushed velvet unitard — which means it’s just all one piece head to toe — and it has a nice high collar, and we have these jingle bells on our jackets, and, of course, we have hats with antlers coming out. It might not be the most comfortable costume, but I just think it looks so sleek…I think it’s a really sharp way to open the show.
What’s the best part about being a Rockette? What memories will you keep with you in the years to come?
LI: When you’re on the stage and you’re looking out into the audience and it might be your fourth show of the day and you’re exhausted, but you look out there and you see people smiling at you with such enjoyment and you’re making someone’s holiday season, because not everyone gets the chance to see a show in general and especially like the Christmas Spectacular. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I feel truly blessed each and every time I take the stage.
JC: The rich history of the Rockettes, you can never wrap your head around the fact that you get to be this little part of it. We can see that in people’s faces when we get to meet them, and it’s not about us but it’s about the history of the Rockettes, and that’s a privilege and the feeling never goes away. The other great thing, I specifically remember my first year on tour, being on stage and being in the middle of a kick line and it was the last number of the show, and you get these little girls and they’re in their little holiday dresses, and this one little girl in particular — I will remember it forever — she had gotten out of her seat and she had her hands on her hips and she was kicking with us. Tears wanted to come down my face. It was the sweetest thing ever. It’s little moments like that you get to experience, and it’s an amazing, amazing gift.