Cover story: Rockettes kick-start holidays with Radio City Christmas Spectacular

The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes perform their signature kickline for the Christmas Spectacular, a music and dance showcase tonight and Saturday at FedExForum.

Paul Kolnik

The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes perform their signature kickline for the Christmas Spectacular, a music and dance showcase tonight and Saturday at FedExForum.

The legendary Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall have to get one thing in particular right every time. And if you know the Rockettes' work, then you know what it is.

The kickline.

Or rather: the most famous kickline in the world.

The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes perform their signature kickline for the Christmas Spectacular, a music and dance showcase tonight and Saturday at FedExForum.

Paul Kolnik

The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes perform their signature kickline for the Christmas Spectacular, a music and dance showcase tonight and Saturday at FedExForum.

Nothing else in the Rockettes' repertoire gets more discussed, analyzed, memorialized and poorly imitated. And for all of its enduring mystique, the dancers are only too happy to reveal its secrets.

"We train our toes to be exactly at eye level," said Megan Crichton, a Rockette of two years. "And you always keep your eye on the person to the right. If you're doing exactly what that person is doing, and that person is doing what the next person is doing, then we can't mess up. It really is a team."

The cookie-cutter uniformity is part illusion: the women do vary in height (between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-10), but the tallest women are in the center while the shortest are on the sides, giving the perception that they are all exactly the same size when spread out in the kickline.

It also takes hours and hours of practice. They rehearse on a floor with a grid, and the difference between right and wrong is measured in centimeters.

Tonight and Saturday, the world's best-known precision dance team performs at FedExForum for the first time. The "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" is a version of the 75th anniversary show that New Yorkers got to see two years ago.

Jeff Capitola, vice president of touring productions for Madison Square Garden Entertainment, says that with 150 cast and crew members and 22 trucks hauling the stage and costumes to the 31 cities on the tour, the "Christmas Spectacular" is an enormous undertaking.

"It's similar to the size of a Rolling Stones or Madonna concert," Capitola said. "The challenge is not just organizing the set-up and takedown. It's also the quality-of-life issues on the road. We carry athletic trainers, a caterer; we have tutors for the three children who are in the show. Every city is a blank slate."

The Rockettes got their start in St. Louis in 1925 as the "Missouri Rockets." Founder Russell Markert wanted a troupe of tall dancing girls with longer legs and better tap steps than he had seen in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922.

Ten years later, Dec. 27, 1932, the first 16 Rockettes appeared at Radio City, sharing the stage with 17 other acts including the Flying Wallendas and Martha Graham.

Since 1933, the Rockettes have appeared in their own Christmas show. More than 2 million people see them perform every year, and the kickline has grown to 36 dancers.

There are currently four productions of the "Christmas Spectacular" on stage: one arena show, two theatrical presentations and the original production at Radio City.

The tour includes signature pieces such as the "Parade of the Wooden Solders" and the "Living Nativity."

"What I've found most interesting about being in arenas is the response," Capitola said. "In theaters, the audience is very warm and comfortable. In arenas, audiences tend to be incredibly vocal."

Dancer Tiffany Whitaker, who has been with the Rockettes for 12 years, says that putting together precision dance numbers is a regimented process.

"There are layers to it," she says. "Once we have the steps down, then we add hats because the hats change the way you dance. Then they take the mirrors away, and that brings a new set of challenges. Then they give you your show shoes, which feel very different from your rehearsal shoes. Then you move to the stage and work with tech. Each step of the way, you get better and better."

Both Whitaker and Crichton say they had seen the Rockettes perform when they were children and wished they could someday be one. They took jazz and tap classes, practiced their high kicks and even saw the dancers as role models.

"They were all so ladylike and well-spoken," Crichton thought upon attending her first rehearsal after winning a coveted spot among their ranks. "But I found that there was a lot of hard work and determination behind everyone of them. It may be a team effort, but when you're out there, the show is counting on you to do it right."

'Radio City Christmas Spectacular'

4 and 7 p.m. today; 1, 4 and 7 p.m. Saturday at FedExForum. Tickets are $46.50-$65.50 for adults, $36.50-$49.50 for children. Call (800) 745-3000.

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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