Ask any one of the 120 Rockettes how her dance career began, and there’a a good chance you’ll get an answer to the tune of: My parents enrolled me in ballet when I was 3 years old. Combine that early introduction to the sport with an annual family tradition that involves cozying up on the couch Thanksgiving morning to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and it’s no surprise that a young Alissa LaVergne zeroed in on her dream job early on. Since 1932, The Rockettes have been about as quintessential to Christmas as St. Nick himself.
As we approached this holiday season, I was desperate to talk to a Rockette. Sure, I took dance lessons as a child, but something about the history, costumes and famed kick lines have always made this dance company seem especially elusive. Lucky for me, Alissa was able to take a quick break from The Rockettes’ jam-packed rehearsal and performance schedule to give me a little glimpse into what it’s like to have every young dancer’s dream job…
*Photography by Kelli Elizabeth
Alissa still remembers watching The Rockettes on TV as a young child one Thanksgiving morning, when her mother said to her, “I can see you doing that when you’re older.”
Years later, her older sister was in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular as a singer, and Alissa flew to New York for her first live viewing of the show. That’s when she knew.
Rockette auditions take place once a year, with around 500 hopefuls from around the globe showing up for the two-day process.
“I got there early and found a spot in the line that wraps around Radio City. Over the next two days, we learned one combination after another — jazz, tap, contemporary modern dance — and they made gradual cuts throughout. My first year auditioning, I made it through to the final high-kick audition, and in the last round, was cut.”
But the next year, Alissa returned to Radio City and made the company. “It’s rigorous and nerve wracking, and the stakes couldn’t be higher, but when you get that call in the end, it’s all worth it.”
Since there are a few different casts around the country, Alissa spent her first two years at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, her next two years at Radio City in New York, and this year — her fifth season as a Rockette — she’s close to her hometown in Houston.
In preparation for the holiday season, the Rockettes rehearse for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. After opening night, they do as many as 16 shows a week, which can mean up to 4 shows in one day.
Alissa tells us what a day on the job looks like for her, and it’s not unlike that of a professional athlete:
“First things first: I wake up and put on my pot of coffee. Then I always take an epsom salt bath in the morning to soothe sore muscles and get the blood flowing.
Once in the studio, I spend 30 minutes warming up with my jump rope, stretching and doing ab workouts. I also use this time to review all the numbers and combinations we’ve learned up to this point — with so much information taught every day, falling behind is not an option.
We spend the rest of the day learning and running through numbers, then take an ice bath at the end of it all to make sure our bodies are healing as quickly as possible in order to get up and do it all over again the next day.”
Alissa then heads home to eat “the biggest dinner imaginable — carbs, protein, and always candy at the end of the night.” And falling asleep is never a problem, as she’s always exhausted from the day’s work.
Once the performances begin, The Rockettes’ days consist of a lot of dancing, and a lot of makeup.
What does the off season look like for you?
“So many of the women do different things when the holidays are over. I spend the off season doing musicals around the US, teaching dance lessons and pilates classes, and this year I’ll be doing the new Radio City Spring Spectacular.”
The biggest challenge of being a Rockette:
“Having your body hold up, and taking care of it to ensure you’ll be able to endure the rehearsal process. Also, being away from family during the holidays can be tough, but the rest of the dancers become your family, so it’s always special to share the season with the cast.”
Your favorite thing about being a Rockette:
“Meeting the kids that come to shows. Little girls dress up in Rockette costumes, and the expressions on their faces and on their parents’ faces are priceless.”
With eight different numbers in the show, the cast get to wear 8 different costumes. Alissa’s favorite: “The one we wear for the finale, ‘Let Christmas Shine.’ It’s a beautiful tan leotard adorned with 3,000 Swarovski crystals, and when the curtain is raised, we’re posed on a staircase with lights on us, and the stones are beaming and radiating all around the theater.”
Other costumes include a huge dress with red and white striped tights, round black glasses and an orange wig for the rag doll-themed tap number, and the famous toy soldier costume for “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” — a number that’s been a part of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular since 1936, and that every Rockette in history has learned and performed.
What style of dance do you specialize in?
“To be a Rockette, you have to be versatile and be able to do ballet, jazz, tap, precision and modern dance. ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ is a very clean number, where creating interesting shapes on stage is really appealing to the eye. It’s at once simple and complicated, and the audience loves it.
We also do more traditional precision dance numbers, like ‘New York at Christmas’ where there’s a double decker bus on stage, and we’re doing the precise movements that the Rockettes are known for.
And the rag doll tap number is more silly, allowing us to infuse the choreography with personality and have fun with the audience.”
The girls get ready in their dressing room at The Hobby Center.
What advice would you offer a young dancer who dreams of being a Rockette?
“Keep going. I’m from a small town in Texas, and my dance classes were made up of 10 people growing up… who would have ever guessed that I’d be doing this? Work hard and do everything you can to prepare for an audition, and if you don’t make it, come back the next year. In the past, girls have auditioned 9 years in a row before getting their first job.”
Alissa described the feeling before the curtain is lifted on opening night:
“There are a lot of emotions. I’ll never forget my first time on stage with the Rockettes in Nashville, and the first time I did the show at Radio City in New York. All your hard work has built up to this one day, and you share in the excitement with the other dancers. I still get butterflies when I have friends or family in the audience.”
When asked what’s next in her career, Alissa answers, “I’ll be dancing as long as my legs will kick.”
Look for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in New York City, Nashville, and in Houston at The Hobby Center from December 5 – December 28!