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What’s it like to be a Rockette?

By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.

The holiday season is upon us, and one of the many traditions is in full swing: The Rockettes’ Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The Rockettes’ job may seem all smiles and fun, but life as one of these dancers is a lot of hard work. For a show like the Christmas Spectacular, for instance, which this year runs from November 8 through December 30, rehearsals could start as early as September, with six-hour rehearsals six days a week. The rewards are grand, however. They get a ton of performance experience, have plenty of PR opportunities, can receive a 401K and get a pretty hefty paycheck for doing what they love.

The Rockettes need to be dancers with very strong technique who are able to dance in heels. Each Rockette must exude confidence in who she is and in her dance abilities; she also must be able to pick up choreography quickly and apply corrections immediately. Overall, she must work hard.

“This is by far the hardest job I’ve ever had,” says Carolyn Simpson Wells, a Rockette from 2005-2010 and who is now a dance teacher and choreographer in New Braunfels, Texas. “From the day you start rehearsals, your dancing and thinking does not stop, so it’s very important to make sure that your body and mind are ready and in shape for the job.”

Rockettes on tour

Carolyn Simpson Wells performed with the Rockettes’ touring shows from 2005-2010. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Simpson Wells.

Wells, who started dancing at age three, trained in ballet, tap, jazz and musical theater. She graduated from The University of Georgia (UGA) with a BS in Dance Education. While in school, she performed with UGA ballet and ballroom companies. After college, Wells went on to dance with Ad Deum Dance Company in Houston and later for Stiletto Entertainment on Holland America Cruise Line. Her fellow performers encouraged her to audition for the Rockettes. She auditioned in Chicago (the Rockettes have multiple city auditions and performance opportunities) and joined in 2005. She performed across the country in the Rockettes’ touring shows, three years in the line and three years as a swing.

“One of the best parts of performing on the road is having the opportunity to dance in some fabulous theaters across the country,” Wells recalls. “I performed in all three Fox Theatres and also got to see and experience some amazing cities while getting paid to do it.”

And for those Rockettes who perform “at home” in New York City, they dance at the Radio City Music Hall, one of NYC’s most iconic buildings and an epicenter of Christmastime. They have performed the Christmas Spectacular in NYC since 1933 and have expanded themselves nationally, reaching millions of families and audience members.

Being a Rockette guarantees tons of stage time. The Rockettes may not only perform multiple times a week but also sometimes multiple times a day.

“The number of shows may vary,” Wells says. “I had one season where we had 150 shows, while another had 55. Usually you commit to September or October through the end of December, and you have the rest of the year to pursue other opportunities. One year, I had the opportunity to perform on a cruise in between Rockette seasons. No bills for 14 months, a great way to save money. How many performing opportunities offer you the chance to invest?”

Rockettes perform Parade of the Wooden Soldiers

The Rockettes perform ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’, a number that showcases precision dancing at its finest. Photo by MSG Entertainment.

Aside from a nice paycheck, Rockettes can also receive a 401K, making the job much more financially secure than many other dance gigs. The Rockettes also have many opportunities for PR and may be featured in commercials, advertisements or billboards and news events, for which they are even trained to answer questions. The relationships that the Rockettes build with each other is also rewarding, especially since the winter performance season occurs at the height of the holidays.

“Everyone is away from their families during the holidays, so you get close and depend on each other,” Wells says. “I’m still friends with many of the people I performed with.”

The Rockettes rehearse and perform for hours a day, so it’s crucial that they take care of their bodies, eat good meals and get plenty of sleep. “The hardest part is the wear and tear on your body,” Wells says.

For those interested in joining the Rockettes, either at Radio City Music Hall or on tour, Wells recommends to start dancing in heels. The Rockettes also offer classes taught by the Rockettes, which is a great way to learn the style. The Rockettes Experience, a dance education program held at Radio City Music Hall, even includes a master class, mock audition, backstage tour and more.

When it comes time to audition, Wells encourages dancers to be sure their headshot and resume are appropriate and to dress accordingly – tan heels, tan tights, leotard, nice makeup and hair slicked back.

“I always encourage dancers to never get discouraged,” Wells adds. “Plenty of girls have to audition multiple times. Rockettes have a unique style that is hard to find anywhere else, and sometimes it takes a couple of auditions – or six – to get the style and to get the attention of the directors running the audition.”

This year, at Radio City, the Christmas Spectacular features an all-new number with special effects, in addition to the classic scenes, such as “Living Nativity” and “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” which is the Rockettes’ precision dancing at its finest. Tickets range from $39-$299 depending on show date and time, and can be purchased online at www.RadioCityChristmas.com, by calling Ticketmaster’s Christmas Hotline at 866-858-0007, or by visiting the Radio City Box Office at 50th Street and Avenue of the Americas. 

Photo (top): Rockettes must be dancers with very strong technique and must be able to dance in heels. Photo by MSG Entertainment.

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