The Rockettes

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The Rockettes

The most renowned chorus line in the world, the Rockettes engendered the American form of precision dancing and have remained the paramount practitioners of synchronized tap-dance routines ever since. A quintessential New York tourist attraction, seen by millions of spectators since their debut at Radio City Music Hall in 1932, the Rockettes spawned multitudinous imitations and made precision kick-lines an established element of American entertainment culture—from amateur theatricals and school productions to Broadway musicals, Las Vegas extravaganzas, ice spectaculars, and half-time shows. The Rockettes are often recognized as epitomizing the "all-American girl," perhaps from a bygone era. They are beautiful, but not overtly sexy, they move in unison, but with a natural athleticism, not as automatons.

The Rockettes were the brainchild of Broadway dance director Russell Markert, who was inspired by the Tiller Girls, a precision dance troupe from England that he saw in the Ziegfeld Follies during the 1920s. Markert yearned to create an American counterpart of the British troupe, but with taller dancers, longer legs, and higher kicks. In 1925, for stage shows that he was producing in St. Louis, Markert assembled a 16-member precision dance team that he called the Missouri Rockets. The group enjoyed great popularity and soon began touring as the American Rockets. "Hide your daughters—here comes Markert" became a common phrase of the late 1920s as the choreographer scoured the land for suitable girls to join the ever-increasing number of dance troupes he was assembling to meet the growing demand for performances nationwide.

While rehearsing in New York for a Broadway appearance, one of Markert's troupes was observed by Samuel L. "Roxy" Rothafel, who invited them to perform in nightly shows at his Roxy Theatre for the six weeks before their Broadway opening. They were such a hit that Rothafel was reluctant to let them go, so Markert trained yet another group to continue performing at the Roxy. When it came time for the theatre's big Easter show, Markert combined two groups into a new 32-member troupe called the "Roxyettes." Thus, when when Roxy Rothafel was asked to produce a gigantic stage spectacular for the opening of Rockefeller Center's Radio City Music Hall on December 27, 1932, he cast his Roxyettes as one of the featured attractions, along with the Flying Wallendas, and modern dancer Martha Graham, among others. The production, however, was not a popular success and, by January 1933, the Music Hall decided to abandon full-evening variety shows and adopted what became its signature format—the showing of a first-run family film, accompanied by a live stage show. The only performers retained from the opening night production were the Roxyettes. In 1934 their name was changed to the Rockettes and they became a regular institution at the famous art deco-style music hall.

In 1937 the Rockettes were invited to represent the United States in an international dance festival at the Paris Exposition and won the grand prize. In accepting the award, the director of Rockefeller Center, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., said that the Rockettes remind us that "the only way we can find success in any walk of life is in working for the group and not for personal aggrandizement."

The governing aesthetic principle of the Rockettes is uniformity. Though they range in height from five-foot four inches to five-foot nine (having gotten progressively taller over the years), the illusion that they are all the same height is achieved by placing the tallest dancers in the center of the line and sloping downward. As director of the Rockettes from their inception until his retirement in 1971, Markert was criticized for his "whites only" hiring policy, but defended his actions by claiming that visual harmony is the backbone of precision dancing, explaining that he didn't even allow his Rockettes to get suntanned. (In 1988, for the first time, an African American dancer did perform as a Rockette.) When auditioning his dancers Markert looked not only for women who could tap, turn, and kick with proficiency, but who could suppress their individuality to conform to the group dancing style. While many Rockettes have spoken of the "high" they get while performing with the troupe on the magnificent Music Hall stage, others have found the experience mechanical, demeaning, and boring for anyone with creative inclinations.

Though the Rockettes have been elaborately costumed over the years as various characters, from cowgirls, poodles, and daffodils, to West Point cadets and astronauts, their routines are choreographically predictable, consisting of a series of tap-danced military drill formations and an obligatory kick-line finale. Unlike the Tiller Girls, who kicked only waist-high, the Rockettes kick to eye-level, straight front, and on the second beat, following a tiny two-footed preparatory jump on the downbeat. The troupe's most distinctive maneuver is the contagious toppling of the annual Christmas show's wooden soldiers: they fall backwards one at a time, neatly collapsing like a row of dominoes.

By the 1970s, as the Music Hall's G-rated films and wholesome variety shows grew out of step with the youth culture of the time, many viewed the Rockettes as kitsch. When, due to sagging boxoffice receipts, the famous showplace was scheduled to close on April 12, 1978, the Rockettes were instrumental in spearheading the successful efforts to save their home. In order to remain open, however, the Music Hall cut back to producing only three large-scale productions a year and began renting its space to presenters of rock concerts and other entertainment attractions. By the late 1990s the annual "Christmas Spectacular" remained the only vestige of the Music Hall's extravagant stage shows.

The Rockettes, however, have continued to perform there, and at entertainment events worldwide. In 1983 their backstage lives were celebrated in the fictionalized ABC-TV movie Legs. They franchised in the 1990s, permitting cities such as Las Vegas and Branson, Missouri, to form their own Rockette companies.

Critics have opined that precision dancing, even when considered old-fashioned, continues to attract audiences because it conveys a reassuring sense of stability. In the rapidly changing techno-world of the late twentieth century, the Rockettes and their simulators remained familiar and comforting providers of popular entertainment.

—Lisa Jo Sagolla

Further Reading:

Jonas, Gerald. "From Innovation to High Camp: The Line at Radio City Music Hall." New York Times Magazine. November 12, 1967, 114-121.

Leavin, Paul. "Twenty-one Ways of Looking at the Rockettes."Eddy. No. 8, 1976, 66-79.

Love, Judith Anne. Thirty Thousand Kicks: What's It Like to Be a Rockette? Hicksville, New York, Exposition Press, 1980.