The Rockettes’ dressing room had the power to break my heart. Had it not been perfect, had it fallen short of my expectations in the slightest, I might have crumbled into a fit, like a child learning the truth about Santa in a toy store. So thank god it far exceeds them: maroon velvet reindeer costumes are hanging on a rack; lit-up vanities have makeup scattered across the desks, just like in the movies; photos of families and loved ones are framed and propped up on each desk; pop music is playing from a portable speaker; the unmistakable smell of Jergens’ Natural Glow gradual self-tanner perfumes the air. Two Rockettes sit on the floor. One flips through a magazine while the other stretches her calves. The rest are painting their faces in a leisurely manner. There’s still time to relax — at least an hour before their first show of the day.
They are all so glamorous in their hair and makeup that I bet grandparents — theirs or not — make jokes like, “Here comes Miss America!,” when they enter the room. And they are so nice that if someone told me that they once won Miss America as a group because the judges just couldn’t decide, I’d believe it. I feel like I’m inside the mind of someone writing a musical about a dancing all-American sorority, and I’m half-expecting the women of Delta Gamma Rockette to break out in song.
They do not, but you can only have so many wishes fulfilled in a day.
I am here to get a behind-the-scenes peek into the daily life of a Rockette. Natalie Reid, a 31-year-old Rockette of seven years, Peter Pan to my note-taking shadow, has agreed to let me trail her for the morning and afternoon. I meet her in the cast’s modest gym at the Radio City Music Hall. She warms up there while we chat, and I get some background.
She grew up in Sammamish, Washington and went to college at Chapman University in Orange, California. She danced for the Odyssey Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah before she auditioned to be a Rockette. (It was during that grueling process where she first performed the iconic high kick.) While showing me the room where they rehearse, Natalie reenacts the very moment she found out she’d made the cut — that she was going to be a Rockette. She does so with such enthusiasm that I feel like I made it, too. “I knew my life was going to change,” she says, “but I didn’t think this much.” She moved to New York in time to rehearse for her first season, and from there, as with so many professional athletes, her life became something of a dedication to her team.
Six weeks before the Rockettes’ season opens in November, the women rehearse for six hours a day, six days a week. When they’re off-season, some teach dance, some work in sales; one is a CPA. The Rockettes themselves are 80 women total, split into two casts of Blue and Gold. 36 women perform on stage at a time, the remaining four in full hair and makeup, ready to go on in an emergency. (These four women are called “swings.”)
In season, the Blue and Gold casts will clock 200 shows combined over the course of seven and a half weeks (approximately 100 per cast), including standard US holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. On weekdays, both casts do anywhere from two to four shows each. They split Saturday’s six shows, three and three. None of this includes special performances: in-season, in addition to the Great Stage at Radio City Music Hall, the Rockettes make appearances on live TV and on the streets, like at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting. Off season, they dance at sporting events for big, one-off moments like the NBA All Star Game and the MLB Home Run Derby. This year, they performed at a Washington National’s game as part of a USO affiliation. This past June, they performed at the Tony Awards, and they’ve been on America’s Got Talent a few times, once with Pitbull. For some reason I love that last fact.
Most impressive to me is how much they still enjoy one another despite so much time spent in close contact. While they don’t exactly roll 80 women deep to their local midtown bar, groups have organically formed within the massive crew, and they’ll hang out after work, go on double dates and have Christmas dinner together. For The Rockettes, this consistent sisterhood is not just something you learn to get comfortable with; it’s a mindset.
“The beauty of this job, and I think why so many women stay here so long,” says Natalie (in her seventh year, she is still considered “new” in comparison to some of the truly tenured dancers*), “is that there’s a lot of opportunities in the professional dance world to be a soloist, but this is all about being one with 36 women as you move across the stage. You’re doing all of this with your best friends, and making magic.”
*Currently, the longest-tenured Rockette (who dances “on the line” right now) has been a Rockette for 17 seasons.
Everyone loves The Rockettes. I feel comfortable making such a sweeping statement because everyone I told about this story told me so with hands clutched to their hearts. Natalie tells me Jimmy Fallon said, “I love you guys!” as they passed one another during practice for the Thanksgiving Parade. At the Tony Awards where they performed before a crowd of Broadway legends, Natalie says people who they ran into them backstage kept saying the same thing. There’s a nostalgia factor, she explains when I ask her why she thinks people have such strong reactions. Everyone seems to have some connection to the show: a parent brought them when they were young, it was the first show they ever saw in New York City, their grandmother used to play pool with one.
Pretty soon, it’s time for Natalie to get ready, and time for me to find my seat. As I walk through the lobby, I realize there’s just something nice about the Rockettes, something warm and fuzzy and wholesome. It’s as though, when you buy a ticket to see the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, as is the show’s formal title, you’re setting an intention to have The Best Day Ever. Even on a weekday, everyone in the lobby is dressed up and festive. Everyone wants to have a good time, to be cheerful, to be with family.
I, meanwhile, am alone — a weird decision, I realize a little too late, given my propensity to nudge and squeeze anyone within grabbing distance when I’m excited. Luckily, my seat mates clap and gasp a lot during the show, which I find comforting.
The show itself, a variety of performances that includes non-Rockettes dance ensembles, is a spectacle. Sometimes it feels like Tim-Allen-as-Santa Claus directed it, not in a bad way! Pairs of 3-D glasses, doled out at ticketing, make Santa’s sleigh fly through the audience, and I’m not going to lie to you: 3-D anything thrills me.
There is a sweet story woven throughout about two brothers, and there’s some dancing bears that I’d have fast-forwarded through; I was feeling Rockette-greedy.
At the end, the birth of Jesus is reenacted on stage with surprisingly elaborate costumes — plus real live camels, of which there are three, all of whom are stabled somewhere in Radio City Music Hall for the season. (Yes, I have several questions about that and yes, I forgot to ask. But I met them! Camels are so cute in person.) At times, the show felt like something from another decade. And in fact, it is: Per a press sheet, both “the Living Nativity” and “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” scenes have been “part of Radio City’s holiday tradition since they were first performed on the Great Stage in 1933.”
Sometimes, during certain Decembers — if it’s too warm or I’m too stressed — I get nervous it doesn’t feel like the holidays. If that worry was beginning to creep into my brain before I walked in today, the Rockettes charmed it out of me. There really is something captivating about them: the way they move as one, as Natalie described; the way their famous high kicks hit the sky in perfect unison.
When the toy cannon explodes and the soldiers fall like Dominos in slow motion, the entire crowd goes WILD. For some reason, I find myself a little emotional. Amid a pretty tumultuous year, something about the rare moment of harmony on stage, the sense of New York tradition and the palpable joy among the audience must have gotten in my eye.
After the show, I go backstage to meet back up with Natalie. The crew of approximately 100 unseen people, from electricians to the camel wrangler to those who work on wardrobe, mill about with purpose to wrap the performance that ended and prepare for the next one in only a few hours. It’s all just as precise and choreographed here as it is on stage. Natalie’s still in her last costume, looking as put-together as ever, her rising and falling sternum the only giveaway that she just performed eight dance numbers and had eight costume changes. She is a pro. After this, she plans to run home to greet her mom, who just arrived in town, to see her boyfriend, walk her dog, then return back for another show.
I ask her for one showbiz secret before we say our goodbyes — something the audience can’t see. As tours and family friends begin to flood in, adding even more moving parts to the ant farm of an operation, she tells me that everyone assumes the Rockettes place their arms on one another’s backs during the high kicks for balance; it isn’t so. “We stand side by side but we never touch.” To her, it’s the perfect metaphor for being on the team: “As a Rockette, you’re doing everything on your own, but still responsible for the whole. You’re all together. One line.”
It’s almost a metaphor for humanity, I think to myself, in a moment of Rockette-fueled romanticism after a day spent inside a snow globe.
Two weeks later, I’ll find the 3-D glasses in my coat pocket. It will be the first of December, and it will feel like the holidays this year.
Photos by Edith Young; Styling by Harling Ross.