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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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The holiday season is all about sweat and smiles for the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
By Jay Cridlin, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007
You know the Rockettes. Of course you do.
You can picture them now, lobbing their legs eye-high in the air, twirling their toes in sparkly succession.
But - and here is the tricky part - if someone asked you what, exactly, a Rockette does for a living . . . what would you say?
"I would say a Rockette's job would be tempering a smile to everyone's face in the audience," said ninth-year Rockette Laura Williams.
"I would say it's a wonderful precision troupe that has been doing the world-famous eye-high kicks since 1933," said Rockette Autumn Smith, another nine-year vet.
Tempering smiles. Eye-high kicks. That's all anyone really knows about the Rockettes, right?
When the Radio City Christmas Spectacular launches tonight at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the Rockettes will kick, and the audience will no doubt smile. It has been that way for decades.
If only reaching the Rockettes in the first place was that simple.
"The line itself is the pinnacle of being a dancer," said Rockettes producer and general manager Jeff Capitola, who oversees the four Christmas Spectacular road shows. "Because of the iconic nature of being a Rockette, for many young dancers it's a lifelong dream."
The curriculum vitae of your garden-variety Rockette reads something like this: a childhood in formal dance training - jazz, tap and ballet, mostly, with the occasional foray into hip-hop - and often some dance experience in college, as well as a willingness to put herself out there. Smith has danced in videos with OutKast and donned a Goofy costume in Tokyo Disneyland.
Oh, and you must stand between 5 feet 6 and 5 feet 101/2. No exceptions.
"They actually measure you, flat-footed, with no heels on or anything," said Williams, 30.
Why so strict? The Radio City Rockettes are seen as the standard-bearers of precision dance, which means uniformity is key. Individual artistic expression is not a key part of the Rockettes' mission statement.
"It's not just about you," Williams said. "It's about us all coming together as one."
The 82-year-old company has built its iconic reputation on a single mantra: If it ain't broke, don't kick it to the curb.
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular includes routines initially choreographed in 1933. And though new numbers routinely make it into the show - the re-creation of The Twelve Days of Christmas is a particular favorite - the two basic highlights haven't changed.
Kicks. And smiles.
Williams likens the Rockettes to professional athletes - which is appropriate, really, because the closest things they have to peers on the American pop cultural landscape might be the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
"A sports team could probably relate," Williams said. "We all feel a sense of accomplishment just from our rehearsals - we rehearse for six hours a day, six days a week - and it is very rigorous, strenuous."
Looks are deceiving
Being a Rockette takes precision. Stamina. Balance. Woe be unto the shortest Rockettes, who get planted at each end of the kick line, and therefore have only one arm on which to balance themselves.
Disagree? You try kicking your toes up to your eyeballs up to 1,200 times a day, and see how you like it.
"It all looks so much easier than it actually is. But that's our job," Williams said. "Even if we are feeling any exhaustion at any point along the way, we have to find it within ourselves to play the part of the iconic Rockette."
Smith, 28, began dancing at age 3, and said she knew she wanted to be a Rockette after watching them kick in unison during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She was a freshman at the University of Florida when her mother called to tell her the Rockettes were holding auditions back home in Orlando. She drove back, got the gig, and rearranged her life accordingly, taking heavy course loads during spring and summer so she could spend her fall semesters kicking with the Rockettes.
"Once you're a Rockette and you're involved in this troupe, you always have this passion for performing in the entertainment business," said Smith, who graduated with a telecommunications degree. "It's just in your blood."
Looking for a home
The dancers describe the Rockettes as a family, which would be eye-rollingly cheesy, if not for the unfortunate fact that during the holidays, it's sort of true.
The contingent of dancers and production staff that travels with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular - about 100 strong in Tampa - spends November and December away from home, performing up to four shows a day. It's a challenge to find extended-stay hotels that can accommodate that large a bloc of visitors all at once - especially since, due to the intense physical demands of the show, most people get their own bedroom.
Producers also try to find suites or apartments with kitchens, because when you're on the road for months at a time, it's impossible to underestimate the value of a home-cooked meal. "They can turn it into a little home away from home," said Capitola, who left his New York apartment on Sept. 29 and won't return until Jan. 1. "That makes us feel a little bit better about putting them on the road."
When the Radio City Christmas Show ends and the Rockettes' seasonal work is over, everyone heads their separate ways. Some return to New York, where they'll audition for Broadway plays or teach choreography classes. Others return to their hometowns - Williams lives in Orlando - but flit up to New York whenever there's a quick-hit Radio City gig in the offing.
Smith teaches Pilates at a New York YMCA, but her education is in film production, and she loves documentary editing. "I love doing the other side of the entertainment business. The behind-the-scenes work. I enjoy that."
The performances begin at 7:30 tonight and run through Dec. 30 at Morsani Hall, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 1, 5 and 8 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m., 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturdays;and 1, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with a handful of exceptions. Tickets are $39-$74. For details, call (813) 229-7827 or visit www.tbpac.org.
Number of Rockettes on the road nationwide for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Number of pounds of paper snow that fall onto the stage during a single season of the Christmas Spectacular
Approximate number of kicks in each Rockette show
Number of shows the Rockettes perform on Saturdays
Number of women in the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes kick line
Number of women in the kick line at a traveling Rockettes show
Number of hours a day the Rockettes rehearse in the weeks leading up to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Number of hours a day the Rockettes rehearse during the final days of tech rehearsal
Number of performances the Rockettes will give during their Tampa run
Total audience for the last Radio City Christmas Spectacular run in Tampa, in 2003
Number of live camels in the show
Number of costumes the Rockettes wear during each show
Number of seconds it takes the Rockettes to make their quickest costume change