10 secrets I learned during my dance class with the Radio City Rockettes

Plus, a few video tutorials if you want to try out their moves.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Things to Do Editor
A group of women hold their hands in the air while dancing with the Rockettes.
Photograph: By Scott Levy, MSG Photo Services

On the stage at Radio City Music Hall, the Rockettes dazzle with their synchronized high kicks, glittering costumes and enthusiastic Christmas spirit. Their legs lift and lower in perfect unison, an ensorcelling feat of athleticism, coordination, balance and teamwork.

I left the show this winter mesmerized by their artistry and struck with questions about how exactly they pull off this precise performance night after night. I didn't expect to get any answers to those questions—that is, until an email popped up in my inbox with the subject line: "You're Invited: Dance Class with the Rockettes." I jumped at the chance and took the class this week. Come with me behind the scenes to learn the secrets of The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. Also be sure to get tickets to the show, which runs through January 4, 2024.

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Two Rockettes—Giulia and Maya—led the class I took with about a dozen other journalists who attended the workshop thanks to Pepsi (which is offering a sweepstakes here for Rockettes tickets and swag). During a 45-minute session, the dancers very patiently taught us parts of the iconic "New York at Christmas" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" dances. But it would be impossible to teach us their stage presence. Both of them commanded the room with purposeful movements and powerful energy. 

Both of our teachers have a long history in dance and have long admired the Rockettes. Giulia grew up being teased for her tall height. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think the Rockettes get made fun of. They’re tall, and they’re allowed to be tall.’ And I loved watching them in the parade every year,” she says. Maya danced competitively as a kid, then fell in love with the show during the Rockettes’ appearances at Alvin Ailey workshops she attended.

They’ve both been Rockettes for three years and were happy to pass along some of the “Spectacular” sparkle to us. Here’s what I learned. 

Two Rockettes teach dance moves to about a dozen women.
Photograph: By Scott Levy, MSG Photo Services

1. There's more than just one type of kick 

Queens of the kick, the Rockettes boast more than one type of kick. We learned two types: The strut kick and the eye-high kick. The strut kick is a snapping kick with a bent knee; here's a how-to video. Indicative of its name, the eye-high kick means the leg comes to the height of the eye. These are the iconic kicks the Rockettes are known for; here's a how-to video.

They do more than 160 kicks per show—that means up to 650 kicks in one day! 

2. The show presents an optical illusion

While watching the show, it looks like all the Rockettes are exactly the same height—but it’s all a visual trick. Dancers’ height can range between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-10 1/2. They line up on stage with the tallest performer in the center, then gradually continue until the shortest performer on each end. This creates an optical illusion for the audience.  

A line of women kicks their legs.
Photograph: By Scott Levy, MSG Photo Services

3. Rockettes follow numbers on the stage

Once the dancers are lined up in height order, they're assigned a particular number indicating their spot in the line. That number stays with them the entire season, and it helps guide them. Numbers printed on the stage indicate exactly where they should stand. The stage is marked with a variety of numbers and colorful lines that the dancers use to get into formation. 

4. The dancers don’t touch each other’s backs

During the kickline, it looks like the dancers link arms behind each other. Instead, they’re careful not to touch each other so they don’t add any extra gravity to the other dancers. They carefully hold their hands aloft behind each other, which takes some serious arm strength.

5. Costume changes take precision 

From glittery leotards to tin soldier costumes to Santa suits, the dancers go through multiple outfits during the show—and sometimes they have just seconds to make it happen. For example, Giulia says, they have just 78 seconds to change out of flouncy green-and-red dresses into their stiff toy soldier costumes. 

"'New York at Christmas' into 'Wooden Soliders,' our change is 78 seconds long, and even down to our gloves, we have to change," she says. "For me, it's really choreographed to the music. I know on the word 'best,' I need to have the dress in my hand. The word 'subway,' I know my gloves have to be on." 

A team of dressers helps the dancers execute their quick change backstage.

6. The ‘Wooden Soldiers’ number has a long history

Every dancer who's ever been a part of the show since 1933 has performed the iconic "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers." It's been a beloved tradition since the very beginning.

Fun fact: The "blush" on their cheeks during this number is actually red stickers.

7. There are two casts 

Each year, there are 84 total Rockettes—36 in one cast and 36 in the other, plus six swings (or backups) for each group. While the morning and night cast usually switch off, sometimes the dancers perform four shows per day! To make it into the show, the dancers must re-audition every year.

8. Rockettes practice intensely

Dancers rehearse six hours per day, six days a week, for six weeks leading up to the holiday season. My legs were extremely sore after a measly 45-minute class, so I can't imagine the toll their rehearsal process takes on the muscles.

"We have such a phenomenal rehearsal process that it truly is such muscle memory," Giulia says.

The author poses with the Rockettes.
Photograph: By Gloria Kim for Time Out New York

9. They dance all year long

Even if they're not dancing at Radio City all year long, these performers dance and train constantly during the offseason to be in tip-top shape for auditions.

10. They're fueled by the audience

The dancers say they love to see the crowd’s reactions.

“The feedback from the audience actually fuels us, especially on a four-show day. It’s such a tangible energy we share with the audience and it really gets you through,” Giulia says.

Maya points out the "Ragdoll" routine where they wear green dresses, striped tights and orange wigs. It always draws a big reaction from the crowd.  

"We pop out of the pit and you see kids everywhere, and their eyes light up," she says. "It's like, wow, this is what it's all about. Those moments of actually seeing the fans in the audience in their glory is really exciting."

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