“We have got to spell Merry Christmas. We have got to,” Trina Simon snaps at the troupe of 18 Rockettes rehearsing for the upcoming Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit.
In a tap dancing/chorus line-type number, the lithe dancers had held up big green, red and white toy blocks spelling Merry Christmas for a grand finale, their faces shining with expansive smiles. But an “R” was upside down.
“Double check your arrows,” barks Simon, the queen bee Detroit Rockette, a New Yorker who comes to Motown every year to whip our Rockettes into the precise shape for which the eye-high kickers are famous. With legs like a gazelle, long reddish hair and a black T-shirt bearing the visage of Marilyn Monroe, Simon paces in heeled dancing shoes with the aura of a professor, a picture of strength and elegance.
The Rockettes, clad in leotards, are sweating, their chests heaving from the workout. If you couldn’t hear them pant, however, you wouldn’t know it: they smile through the strain, at least until the number is complete.
Now, some have their hands on their hips, pacing to cool down. The troupe rehearses six hours a day at near-running pace, six days a week, from Nov. 4 until the show opens on Nov. 29. From then, the Rockettes and the ensemble cast and crew of 120 people put on 54 shows, as many as four a day, until the end of December. They’ll be in marathon shape by then.
Simon claps her hands, calling for a break. Production people scurry around with instruments and implements, headsets and glittery cardboard candy props and charts. Everything moves according to the clock.
The Rockettes retreat to the bench lining a large rehearsal space inside the Masonic Temple Theatre with the intensity of an NBA team. These athletes are all business. They plop to the floor to take off 2 1/2-inch heeled Capezio dance shoes. Hands move quickly, unwinding tape. They wince and gasp with each buckle undone, each bandage unwound from oozing blisters. One dancer sits on the bench with her mouth agape, starring at a throbbing toe swaddled in white tape.
“Hurt? Oh, yeah. Mmm, hmm. My feet have blisters all over them. The worst is every time you take off the shoes, the bandages come right off,” says Karyn Reed, who’s been with the Detroit production six years. As this year’s “swing” Rockette, she must be ready to fill in for any member of the troupe. She must know the routines for each dancer on the line.
Once feet are freed, the Rockettes bounce around the room, greeting friends in the ensemble dance cast, playing with children dancers, giving hugs and sharing laughs. It’s Fame meets Miracle on 34th Street. As the Rockettes exit for lunch, the ensemble cast gathers.
Director Dennis Callahan watches every move as the ensemble performs a ballet-inspired number.
“Men, I need to see more joy in what you do,” says Callahan. “When you land, we need to see that joy. Your face has to be lifted. Lift your eyes. Lift the corners of your mouth. Even if you’re walking, show me something going on in the face.”
A new old tradition
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular first played in Detroit in 1997 and is rapidly establishing itself as a Detroit tradition, a flamboyant feast of visual and audio stimulation.
The nine-scene variety show melds lush Ziegfeld Follies style and the famed precision choreography of the Rockettes with such offerings as a Santa rock ’n’ roll number and a teddy bear version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” The Rockettes perform “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a marching routine the troupe has performed annually during the holidays, unchanged, for nearly 80 years.
The show is a swirl of feathers, glitter and opulence seldom seen since the good ol’ days of classic film and Broadway.
Amid the glitz is a living Nativity scene. Five sheep, three camels, two donkeys and a dog are shipped from an animal farm in Kansas for the gig. The camels appear in feathered costumes. Press materials describe the show’s Nativity scene as “a re-creation of the holy family’s birth” in Bethlehem, that “upholds a tradition begun by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223.”
It’s the ultimate expression of America’s schizophrenic Christmas celebration: sexy legs kicking high for our pleasure, classic dance, copious glitter and elaborate costuming juxtaposed with a nod to the Christ Child.
But it’s immensely meaningful for some.
“When I look at the tape of the live Nativity, it still brings tears to my eyes,” says Kim Schwert, one of the show’s six little people (the preferred term for dwarfs). In Mexico, the Nativity features a horse, a camel and an elephant, says Schwert, a New Yorker who has done two shows in Mexico City, in Spanish, and four in Detroit.
Out on the rehearsal floor, director Callahan kindly beats the exacting choreography into the heads of the 55-member cast. Thirty are new this year. Roughly half the crew is based in New York. Out-of-towners stay in an apartment complex in Dearborn during the show.
“They always put us in a beautiful apartment in the suburbs,” says Cheryl Randal, wardrobe supervisor, who says she constantly defends Detroit to her friends. She loves Eastern Market and “the suburbs here are wonderful.”
As the Rockettes rehearse, Simon, the Rockettes’ dance captain, and Shawnda James, ensemble dance captain, consult huge binders containing 250 pages of charts and numbers. They count and check each turn of the hand, twist of the head, jump in the air, landing position. Each movement is set exactly to points in the music. It’s amazing how the dancers keep track.
The Rockettes were founded in 1925 as a precision dance company, the “Missouri Rockets,” opening in St. Louis. Radio City Music Hall bought the company, and the Rockettes opened the theater in 1932, performing there every holiday season since.
In 1994, Radio City Entertainment decided to take the Christmas show to cities outside of New York. The company casts 200 Rockettes; more than 1,000 tried out this year. Eighty Rockettes are stationed in New York, while 120 perform in nine other cities: Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Cleveland, Branson, Mo., Phoenix, Indianapolis, Grand Prairie, Texas and Minneapolis.
Detroit Rockettes are quick to stress that they are “real” Rockettes, not imitations.
“It’s a misconception that Rockettes are only in New York,” says Tracy Rysdale of White Lake. “No matter what city we are in, we are all Rockettes. All 200 of us must meet the same standards and requirements.
“I want to help educate people on that fact.”
Half of this year’s Detroit Rockettes either live or have roots in Michigan. The rest come from New York and elsewhere. Eleven are newcomers; all Rockettes must audition every year. A controversy erupted over that very issue this year when Cablevision, owner of Radio City since 1997, demanded that the new union contract require the New York Rockettes to audition annually, just as Rockettes outside New York must.
Several Rockettes handed out protest flyers in Rockefeller Center, causing a minor scandal for the wholesome bastion of New York glamour. In September, Cablevision won the battle, including buyout deals for many of New York’s 41 veterans.
Press reps in Detroit and New York keep Rockette information close to the vest. I fish for information and get nebulous answers. I am able to determine that Rockettes must be at least 18 and from 5 feet-5 1/2 inches to 5 feet-10 inches tall.
Finally, after days of inquiries, Susan Arons, vice president of public relations for Radio City Entertainment in New York, provides some answers.
She insists there is no weight requirement for Rockettes, saying that instead they undergo general health testing that includes “all sorts of things.”
“They want healthy dancers, and dancers that can do the work,” Arons explains.
Arons says the dancers are not asked their age, and she doesn’t know the age of the oldest Rockette. She says some stay in the game as long as 13 years, and many are mothers. One Rockette dancing this Christmas is a mother of three; another had a baby five months ago.
“It’s all based on ability to do the work,” says Arons.
The Rockettes did not have an African-American dancer until 1985. Now, 27 percent of Rockettes are minority, and Radio City is working to recruit more minorities, Arons says.
“The last several years, we’ve made a concerted effort to reach out to the ethnic community. We feel it’s a priority that the line reflects the audience,” she says.
Producer Brian Kauffman is my guide to the backstage world of the Rockettes and the Christmas Spectacular. An affable force, Kauffman watches over every aspect of the show with a piercing eye for detail. He’s responsible for everything from ordering hundreds of pairs of dancing shoes— and 20 pairs of tights per Rockette — to purchasing bags of frozen peas to ease sore muscles. The show uses 13 trailers full of props, scenery, costumes, lighting and sound gear — 300 costumes, 200 hats, 400 gallons of water and 40 hours of massage therapy.
“I don’t deal with the creative side,” says Kauffman. “It’s my job to make sure Dennis (Callahan, the director) has all the tools to do his job well. It’s easy, really.”
It’s clear that he’s a good manager. There’s a lighthearted, family feel among cast members. Several express admiration and affection for Kauffman.
“I love Brian. We all do,” says Schwert, the little person. “He’s wonderful to work for. I look up to him. But then again, I look up to everyone.”
Kauffman is freer with his creative people than with the press. While Kauffman is generous with his own time and more than friendly, I am watched like a hawk while spending time with the Rockettes and the ensemble crew. As I set about learning the backstage realities of show biz, access is micro-managed with assistance from Fox Theater’s Olympia Entertainment promoters. Kauffman does not answer questions about budgets or attendance or the stringent requirements placed on the Rockettes.
I am accompanied at all times, even when I’m just sitting and watching rehearsal. Kaufman and a press rep sit with me while I speak with Rockettes over lunch. Later, after lobbying for more access, I dine with a Rockette and an Olympia PR representative. All are sweet and charming as ripe peaches, but access to the stars is monitored for quality control and, I suspect, rehearsed with a precision worthy of the stage.
To be a doll
“Oh, My God, you didn’t! What did she eat?” my grandmother exclaims when I tell her I dined with a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. From the reaction my mother and grandmothers have to the news, you’d think I’d won a prize for investigative journalism.
“They are so magical,” says my other grandmother, who recalls watching the famous troupe in New York City after my grandfather came back from World War II.
“Even the air was perfumed,” says my grandma with uncharacteristic enthusiasm — she’s a tomboyish country girl.
The genesis of the excitement was a meal at Jay Alexander’s in Somerset Collection shopping mall with Alison Roller-Woerner, a Rochester native and Rockette extraordinaire.
“I’m starved,” says Roller-Woerner, who remarks that her busy schedule makes time fly by. She says she must remind herself that “the world’s not going to end if I don’t vacuum.”
It’s 7 p.m. and she’s been working since 10 a.m. The workouts are grueling — high kicking alone can cause cramps, not to mention the nonstop dancing to complex choreography, all while singing or sometimes wearing animal costumes that weigh up to 60 pounds. No wonder Alison is as petite as a slipper.
She orders grilled salmon with wild rice and a salad.
Stamina and quick wit survive on a high-protein diet, she says; both are requirements for the Rockettes.
She bubbles with exuberance for her job, her family and Christmas. She’s so cheery and shiny I feel like a troll. Of course, Rockettes are trained to do more than kick and dance; they are interviewed to ensure they can represent the troupe. Press officials select those I may speak with, keeping close by to monitor the conversation.
Every year, Roller-Woerner says, she buys Christmas Spectacular paraphernalia for her entire family. Coloring books, Rockette and toy soldier dolls, snow globes with happy holiday scenes inside, ornaments, toy soldier hats.
She’s not a girlie-girl, not big on pink ruffles. She loves to wear sneakers and flip-flops. Yet she has three Rockette Barbie dolls and hopes to get a new one this year.
“How can you not get a doll when it’s made after you?” she asks. “I remember which doll came out which year. To have a doll that’s you, it’s pretty neat.”
It’s Roller-Woerner’s fourth year as a Rockette. She lives in Lake Orion with her husband, a mechanical engineer. She has no desire to be a New York City Rockette and will perform in Detroit as long as she can.
“It makes me feel loved when my dad says his buddies are going to come to the show,” says Roller-Woerner.
The first year she performed, her mom went 10 times, she says; last year, eight.
Predictably, time to Christmas shop and do holiday stuff is limited, she says, considering the workouts six days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
But, I note, in today’s America, 10 to 5 doesn’t seem all that strenuous.
“Try exercising at running pace six hours a day, six days a week, while at the same time holding a candy cane that’s as tall as you, swinging props held perfectly vertical, imagine that strain on your wrist, kicking and singing — it’s a lot at once. It’s hard work,” says Roller-Woerner, somewhat indignant.
She says she eats and falls asleep after practice.
Like her comrades, Roller-Woerner is very proud of her status — she wears a leather jacket proclaiming her job title, a gift from the Music Hall to the Rockettes two years ago. She bristles at the stereotype of Rockettes as “just a line of women doing kicks” and says the troupe is more than some make it out to be.
“We are career women, just like women in any profession. We just kick very high and are very talented and very intelligent. Our profession might even be a little harder because you have to look a certain way.
“When people ask me what I do, I always tell them I’m a Radio City Rockette. First and foremost, always. It’s a big honor and a big deal.”
She cringes when I ask her if rumors that some Rockettes are also strippers are true.
“The Christmas spectacular is about kids and Christmas and Santa, we are wholesome and about family. The Rockette is a classy woman. I take great pride in that.”
For the rest of the year’s 10 months, Roller-Woerner, like most Rockettes, dances professionally. She teaches modern dance workshops on weekends.
“As long as I can do what I love, dancing, I’m a happy girl,” she says. “Being a Radio City Rockette gets in your blood, you love it so much. Most Rockettes do dance all year, because they love it so much, you know what I mean? It’s like an itch. You have to scratch it.
“What I get out of it is going onstage and seeing 5,000 people and my mom, who have come to see me dance. That feeling, it’s irreplaceable.”Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org