by Barbara Malinsky

“I’ll never forget getting that phone call.  It was so overwhelming!  I dreamed about it since I was a young girl,” recalled Kim Petros.  That ring was her invitation to join the world-famous, eye-high kicking Rockettes.

Kim Petros, Connecticut’s own Rockette

Hailing from New Milford, Connecticut, Petros started dancing at the age of four.  “I was a shy child so my mom put me in dance.  Once I got on stage, I realized I loved it.”  Since that first experience, she was unstoppable; exploring all forms of dance like tap, modern, and ballet that she took three times a week.   In her pursuit of the best, she studied throughout the area.  Jeri Kansas, a former Rockette, was one of her teachers and obviously had an impact on her. She travelled all over New England with her parents to various dance competitions.  “I don’t know how they did it.”

When it was time for college, she was admitted into the prestigious New York University dance program that is quite small and therefore very competitive.  “I actually auditioned for the Rockettes in my freshman year.  I made the callback but didn’t go even though it was something I always wanted to do.  Education is important to me and my family so I decided to stay in college and finish my degree.”

With college nearing completion, she began applying to dance companies.   “I auditioned for ballet but I was too tall.  They’re looking for dancers about 5’ 5” and I’m 5’ 7”.   (The Rockette range is 5’ 6” to 5’ 10.5”.)    I auditioned for the Rockettes in May which was one month before graduation and got in.”   For the first four years, Petros was in the touring group.  She travelled throughout the country visiting different cities every year.  “I loved bringing the Christmas Spectacular to people all over and the joy that comes with that.”

A day in the life of a Rockette demands a passion for dance and excellence.  Rehearsals begin at ten in the morning until five in the evening, six days a week.   The exacting precision of the troupe comes from breaking the music down to each beat.  Petros explained, “ Every count to the music and every step is measured.  That’s what’s so amazing about the Rockettes.”  For example, on count one, a dancer’s head must be in a certain place; on count two, the elbow must be aligned; on count three, the hip placement must be angled exactly to match the others and so on until everything is in sync.    “We keep doing the same eight counts until everything matches exactly.  There are challenges every day and new numbers every year.”  A Rockette must also be dedicated to the group where the troupe is the star.

One of the most exciting, exacting, traditional dances is the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.  There is minimal scenery to distract the audience.  It’s all about the formation precision of the dancers who have only a few stage markers to guide them.  The illusion that everyone is the same size is achieved by placing the tallest women in the center and the shorter ones on the ends.  “Each year, you may be in a different spot which is a choreographic challenge.  Although we look outward, we use what we call a ‘guiding eye’, looking right and left, to make sure we’re in line with the girls next to us.”   Wardrobe uses over 15,000 red dots per season to brighten the cheeks of the wooden soldiers in this number.

2012  marked eighty-five years for the Rockettes in New York.  There was a retrospective featuring their most extraordinary costumes through the decades.  “Each costume has music and dance that goes along with those styles.”  More than 1,200 colorful costumes were worn in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.  Each of the Rockettes was required to change eight times during each show and, in a few of the changeovers, they had only seventy-eight seconds to make that alteration.

Another audience favorite is New York at Christmas where the Rockettes board a real double-decker Gray Line bus taking audiences on a tour of Manhattan.  The bus weighs an amazing seven tons and is thirty-four feet long and twelve feet high.  In the course of the eight-week run, it travels approximately thirty-seven miles onstage!  Off-stage, the bus hangs twenty-three feet in the air for storage.

Embracing new special effects has taken the show to new heights incorporating 3D elements interacting with live performance that has never been done before in a live theatrical setting.  In past years, more than one million pairs of 3D glasses have be distributed to patrons for this experience.

The Living Nativity continues to be a vital part of the production.  During the eight-week run, the animals drink 450 bottles of water and eat 340 bales of hay and 560 loaves of seven-grain bread.   Let Christmas Shine celebrates and honors the Rockettes as the stars of the show as they sparkle with 3,000 Swarovski crystals.

The recent history of the high-kicking dancer began in mid-nineteenth century France with the raucous can-can performed at venues like the Moulin Rouge.  Women kicked high, flinging up their flaring petticoats, which was considered shocking in a time when an excessive display of ankle was considered dissolute.  However, they were not synchronized.  At the nearby Folies-Bergère there were examples of women kicking in unison.  These were resident groups trained by the British choreographer John Tiller.  Inspired by the Parisian follies, Florenz Ziegfeld brought some of Tiller’s dancers to his Ziegfeld Follies in New York.  It was here that an American, Russell Markert, had the opportunity to witness emerging synchronized dancing.

Markert’s famous comment was destined to come to fruition.  “If I ever got a chance to get a group of American girls who would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks…they’d knock your socks off!”  He founded such a precision group in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1925, which originally performed as the “Missouri Rockets”.  The group was brought to New York City by S. L. (Roxy) Rothafel to perform at his Roxy Theater and renamed the “The Roxyettes”.   In 1932, the troupe left the Roxy Theater to open Radio City Music Hall and became known as the Rockettes.

Markert gave synchronized dancing its own unique American signature.   The beloved Rockettes are part of the tapestry of New York.  The Christmas Spectacular is one of the most watched live theatrical productions in the United States with over two million viewers every year. They have become a piece of Americana, appearing in some of the most prominent events in America’s rich cultural life such as national television specials, the Superbowl Halftime Show, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the NBC Tree-Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Center as well as Presidential inaugurations.

For Kim Petros, becoming a Rockette was a dream come true.  In fulfilling her aspiration, she also became part of an American institution which is part of the fabric of American life steeped in an almost one hundred year history.   “It’s so great looking out at an audience of 6,000.  We can see about the first 15 rows; seeing the little kids smile makes all the hard work worth it.   I would advise young dancers to take as many dance classes from a variety of teachers and get as much performing experience as they can to expand their technique and range of dance.  You couldn’t be a Rockette without extensive training in different styles and ballet is the basis of all dance.”

Petros has been a Rockette for eleven years and plans to continue for at least eleven more.  “I love Connecticut and would love to go back there to live some day.”  But for now, she is enjoying being part of a legendary, select group of talented, athletic dancers and hearing the applause of

The Rockettes Celebration! begins in November and runs through the end of December.  Call 1.866.0007 or go to  www.RadioCityChristmas.com for ticket information.

(original article featured Dec 2012, Ink Publications)

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *