Behind the Spectacular: What It's Really Like to Be a Rockette
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is emblematic of winter in New York City. And anyone who's seen it will tell you that the high-kicking stars of its show, the Rockettes, are holiday mascots in their own right.
But what goes into those perfectly synchronized steps, which have turned precision dancing into an American tradition since 1933? Alissa LaVergne, who will perform as a Rockette for her eighth year this season, gave us the scoop on all the dazzling set designs, intensive rehearsals, and behind-the-scenes hijinks that make the Spectacular such a spectacle.
Calling us from New York, where she spends most of the year performing various shows with the Rockettes (she also acts in local theater productions on the side), LaVerge took us behind the curtain. Scroll down for the full interview and for tickets to the Annual Christmas Spectacular, which begins this Friday, November 10th, visit the Rockettes's official website.
What made you want to audition for the Rockettes?
I started dancing at the age of 3. I grew up loving to dance, and the studio that I went to was a very precision-style dance studio as well. Being from a small town in Texas, I never was able to make it up to New York City during the holidays to see the Christmas Spectacular. Our big tradition in our family was to wake up on Thanksgiving morning and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade [on TV]. My mom would wake me up and my siblings, and we would have our coffee and hot cocoa and watch the Rockettes perform. I looked up at them and thought, 'This is the coolest thing.' They’re dancing for a living and they’re so happy, and they’re beautiful and strong. One year, we were watching it, and my mom looks at me, and goes, "Alyssa, I can see you doing that." I think from that point on, it kind of gave me the little motivation to be like, 'Yeah, my parents believe in me. I can do this.'
How did you turn that fantasy into reality?
I went to college for musical theater and dance. I auditioned one year, back in 2008, and made it all the way through the auditions. I didn’t make the call that year, but I went back the next year, bound and determined to get this job, and got a call. I’ve been a Rockette ever since. I'm going on 8 years already. I was actually a part of the Rockette Summer Intensive program one year. That gave me a lot of insight into what a day in the life of a Rockette is and what they go through during rehearsals. It helped me prepare for the auditions. It only gave me more drive to do it because I loved the process, and I loved working as hard as they do.
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Does your family now come out to watch you perform?
They come out to visit wherever I’m doing a show, at least two times a year. My mother has seen it probably 200 times, I would say, because when they come here to visit, they don’t just see it once, they have to see it at least two or three times. And what’s really cool is that I had my brother and sister-in-law and my niece and nephew come up to New York City for the very first time this past Christmas to see the show. To be able to have my niece and nephew get to see me on stage and experience the iconic Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall was such a special moment for me.
How often do the costumes change? Are they updated each year?
There’s always a little something different that changes with our shows, even within our costumes. We have two great costumes and numbers that have been in the show since it’s conception in 1933. Probably the biggest iconic number in the show is the "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers"—one of my favorites numbers, and costumes because obviously any Rockette that has been a Rockette has done this number. It's really cool to be a part of such a tradition and legacy of strong women. We have these cool pants that come up to our waist, and they're fused with a foam/cotton/canvas-type of situation that literally stands on its own. It’s a bit of a struggle to actually get into them sometimes, but it gives the illusion that our legs are wooden, and they're super straight. We have a hat that stands two-and-a-half feet tall, and 36 women that are standing on stage, shoulder to shoulder, making these incredible formations and lines. It brings out a different personality of the Rockettes but also keeps in line with the precision dance that we have.
How do Rockettes prepare for the Spectacular?
First off, we rehearse six hours a day, six days a week, for about six weeks before the show is up and running. And those days are spent just learning and perfecting and kicking and making sure that by time we get to theater, all we have do is add the costumes to put it on the great stage at Radio City. It’s very intense and grueling but also really fun because it’s all what we love to do. There’s a lot of kicking and a lot of dancing.
Has anybody ever been kicked in the face during practice?
Not that I personally know of—in the face. But it’s a live theater and when we’re learning, there’s two casts of 40 women, so in rehearsals there’s 80 women in the room, all learning their tracks and their choreography. Sometimes it gets a little squishy in there, but no, we’re all very mindful of each other and our space.
What does the chaos look like backstage, right before the curtain comes up?
It’s actually very high energy backstage but with so much laughter. The Rockettes have become such a family, each Christmas spending so much time with each other and being on the same schedule. It's like a nervous excitement. There’s always jitters before the curtain comes up. Backstage, we’re all talking, stretching, getting warmed up, and getting the nerves out. We play little what we like to call "ranger games" backstage before the curtains come up. We get in our places, and we hear the orchestra start, then it’s like okay! It’s go-time. For the Rockettes and the ensemble and the crew members, we’re all just having such a good time backstage.
Do you fear you'll kick out of step on stage?
The nerves of doing every show I think come from wanting our show to be as perfect as possible. So obviously, it’s always going to be a little nerve-wracking. But we work so hard. That’s why we have rehearsals for six weeks before, so we get that choreography so engraved in our bodies, that we’re so comfortable with it when we get on the stage. It's like waking up and having your coffee. It becomes very natural.
Any interesting Rockette pre-show rituals?
I think everybody has their own personal rituals that they do before shows. I personally like to do my warm up in my dressing room, with my headphones on, listening to country music. It's my favorite genre of music—it just brings me back home. If I get really excited or nervous, that’s my ritual. It keeps me calm but hypes me up at the same time.
What do you do to maintain your physical and mental health during show season?
The warming up and cooling down before and after a show is very important because we do up to four shows a day, sometimes up to 16 shows a week, with one day off. So it’s very grueling, and taxing on the body physically, but our staff has an amazing athletic training department that is there on site, all day, everyday, to help with injuries or helping to get our fatigued bodies ready for each show. Mentally, I would say talking to family and friends and keeping perspective of what we’re doing. We get to bring tradition and so much joy to so many families throughout the season. Even when you’re exhausted and you look out into the audience, the fact that it could be someone's first time seeing the show helps with any mental fatigue that I have.
What has changed the most over your eight years as a Rockette?
Something changes every year. What is so exciting this year in particular is the technology. This Christmas Spectacular is unlike anything you have ever seen before. We used to have technology on the arches of the ceilings at Radio City, but it only reached up to four arches [of seating]. This year we have a fully immersive digital mapping that goes to the last. So whether you’re sitting in the first row or the last row of the mezzanine, you’ll really feel like you’re a part of the show. It is so crazy that no matter where you sit, everything around you is just Christmas—there’s snowflakes, there’s Santa, trains, and reindeers. It’s so cool!
What advice do you have for Rockette hopefuls?
Take as many dance classes, as many lessons from choreographers and directors and teachers, and get yourself ready for the auditions. Get that determination and drive in yourself that you can do it.