Holiday Kicks

The Rockettes' Radio City Christmas Spectacular Stops in Baltimore for the first time

November 30, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Six glittering Rockettes, each with impossibly long, impossibly slim legs and full makeup, though it's only a Monday afternoon, are offering enthralled Towson University dance students a glimpse behind the curtain.

Is there a height requirement?

Yes.

A weight limit?

No.

And their signature move? They each perform about 300 kicks per show, so with 100 shows a season, the young women thrust their high-heeled feet to within inches of their eyes thousands upon thousands of times.

And no, oh no, it's not easy. But it is their job - and their great honor - to make it look that way, just as more than 3,000 women who came before them did. They're Rockettes, after all - a high-stepping facet of Americana and holiday tradition for more than 75 years.

The Rockettes' Radio City Christmas Spectacular tour stops in Baltimore for the first time this year, opening Tuesday at 1st Mariner Arena. The show runs through next Sunday.

The chorus line started kicking in 1925 in St. Louis, then known as the "Missouri Rockets." A New York showman spotted the dancers and brought them to New York, where they made their debut at Radio City Music Hall on Dec. 27, 1932.

Since then, the Rockettes' fame has spread with the young women entertaining the troops during World War II, performing halftime acts at the Super Bowl, spots at two presidential inaugurations and numerous television appearances, including being a mainstay of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The Rockettes estimate that more than 2 million people see their Christmas Spectacular every year. For 14 years, the company has been taking the show on the road, though this year, for the first time, it will stop at arenas such as 1st Mariner. The arena setting allows the Rockettes to spread out into a much larger-scaled production than they perform at smaller theaters.

Samantha Harvey was just one of the thousands of little girls whose parents treated them to a Rockettes show in New York for the holidays. It ended up changing her life.

"Ever since then," says the Baltimore native who makes her Rockettes debut this year, "I knew I wanted to be a professional dancer."

Harvey, 22, graduated this year from Towson University. Before she moved to New York, she taught dance classes at Towson's Children's Dance Division, Dance Allegro School and Mercy High School.

Her family and friends - including her mom, Nancy Wenzl, who used to be a dance teacher - have bought a big block of seats for one of Harvey's hometown performances.

For those who want to spot her, she'll be the second in from the right. Since she's on the shorter side for a Rockette, she goes at the edge of the line, part of an optical illusion that gives the effect that the dancers are all the same height.

Harvey is more than tickled to be part of the show that left such an impression on her. She still remembers what it felt like to be a child watching the Rockettes' famous toy soldier routine.

"I loved at the end when the cannon came out and knocks the line of soldiers down," she says. "I'm so excited that I get to be in the line and learn how to do that."

Getting used to dancing in the Rockettes standard 2 1/2 -inch heels and building up her stamina was hard work, she admits. Like the other dancers, she's learned to jump in an ice bath at the end of each performance and practice to prevent inflammation.

The show includes eight costume changes - some done in as little as 78 seconds, which is not a lot of time to slip on full outfits plus matching hats, earrings and even gloves.

"My favorite is the 'shine' costume," Harvey says. "It's a rhinestone- and diamond-studded dress. It looks like we're just wearing diamonds. We enter on a staircase, all 24 Rockettes, and we just sparkle."

Parts of the group's holiday show date back almost to the beginning. The toy soldier number that made such an impression on Harvey, for instance, has been performed every year since 1933.

With the exception of the dancers' famous high kick line, the soldier number is possibly the best example of the Rockettes' precision dance style. In fact, the Rockettes are largely responsible for keeping precision dance alive, a style that was hugely popular in the Busby Berkeley movies of the 1930s and '40s, but fell by the wayside in favor of more modern moves that show off a dancer's individualism.

In the toy soldier number, the Rockettes, each outfitted in identical white pants, red coats and plumed hats, move stiffly, as if they were made of wood, snapping their heads and straight legs with razor-sharp synchronicity.

When the Rockettes who visited Towson's dance class recently tried to show the students how to move like a soldier, few students could pull it off.

"You should be so close that only a thin piece of paper can fit between your shoulders," one Rockette told the students. "And I noticed quite a few bent knees. Soldiers don't have knees."

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