12 High-Kicking Facts About the Radio City Rockettes

The Radio City Rockettes perform the March of the Wooden Soldier at the Christmas Spectacular in Radio City Music Hall.
The Radio City Rockettes perform the March of the Wooden Soldier at the Christmas Spectacular in Radio City Music Hall. / Bob Jagendorf, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

More than 2 million people see the Radio City Rockettes's Christmas Spectacular show each season—and it’s a wonder you have to see to believe. Here are some things you might not have known about the leggy dance company, which has become synonymous with the magic of the holiday season.

1. The Radio City Rockettes got their start in St. Louis.

Nope, the Radio City Rockettes weren’t always a Midtown Manhattan attraction. The Rockettes launched in 1925 as the Missouri Rockets, a Follies-style dance troupe out of St. Louis. Creator Russell Markert got the idea after he was impressed by the UK precision dance troupe in 1922’s Ziegfeld Follies. “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,” he once said, “they’d really knock your socks off.”

2. The Radio City Rockettes got the attention of a Broadway impresario almost immediately.

Theater magnate S.L. (“Roxy”) Rothafel caught a show while the group toured in New York and hired the dance team—then a group of 16 women—for his Roxy Theater (demolished in 1961, it stood at 50th Street and Seventh Avenue). The dance company went through a few names—the Roxyettes, the American Rockets, and even the Rosettes—before Roxy found a moniker and location that stuck.

3. The Radio City Rockettes took the stage at Radio City Music Hall on day one.

Free-Photos, Pixabay

Rothafel planned and designed Radio City Music Hall, a joint venture between John D. Rockefeller and RCA. On opening night, December 27, 1932, the precision dance team performed alongside 17 other acts, including Martha Graham and vaudevillian Ray Bolger (you might know him as the scarecrow in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz).

4. A year later, the Radio City Rockettes debuted the iconic Christmas Spectacular.

The team behind the show, produced by Leon Leonidoff (a Radio City mainstay, whose "name on a production represented a warranty of grandeur") and designed by Vincente Minnelli (eventual husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza), had major star power. Back then, the Rockettes and other live performers served as a sort of opener for screenings of the latest films. Now, of course, Radio City is a premier concert hall, akin to playing Carnegie Hall.

5. The Radio City Rockettes went on strike in 1967.

The troupe picketed outside Radio City that September, rallying for better wages given their demanding rehearsal schedule and pay for rehearsal time (previously they were paid only for performances). The standoff lasted 27 days and the dancers won out in negotiations, just in time for the holiday show to go on.

6. Russell Markert stayed with the Radio City Rockettes for decades.

At Radio City, the group’s creator continued on as their director, lead choreographer, and stern drill sergeant until his retirement in 1971. A father-like figure to about 2500 Rockettes, he referred to his employees as his “dancing daughters.”

7. For the Radio City Rockettes, precision is the name of the game.

Bob Jagendorf, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Markert’s vision was a drill team that performed and moved as one dancer. For each member of the Rockettes to learn precisely how to hit her marks, choreographers assign a grid-like system of labels to the stage; one Rockette likened it to a game of Battleship.

8. The Radio City Rockettes’s athleticism is a thing of beauty.

Sure, people may write these girls off as “Stepford dancers, objectified women reduced to nothing but legs and teeth,” per The New York Times. But in the same story, the Times points out that the Rockettes’s physical accomplishment is nothing to sneeze at: “Even in a city full of sweating, striving talent, the Rockettes may well be the hardest-working women in show business.” Case in point: Before opening night, the troupe rehearses for six hours each day, six days a week, for nearly six weeks. On any given day, when the Rockettes perform up to five shows, a single dancer can do more than 1000 high kicks.

9. One of the Radio City Rockettes’s most classic numbers has remained unchanged since 1933.

“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a perennial favorite in the Christmas Spectacular, has been part of the holiday show since its first year. Dancers, who take tiny, precise steps in straight formations, say it’s one of the hardest numbers in the show. Spoiler alert: The dance ends with a slow-motion backwards fall, where each soldier knocks down the next in a domino-effect move. Talk about Christmas magic.

10. The Radio City Rockettes’s costume changes are pretty intense.

Speaking of the toy soldiers: the Rockettes have a mere 78 seconds to change out of those starchy white pants and impossibly high hats (which actually cover their eyes), and into their next costumes: the sparkly red and green dresses and white coats of the "Christmas in New York" number. The dancers also have to fit shoe, hat, and earring changes into those 78 seconds, and quickly remove the red felt circles they adhere to their cheeks with double-stick tape during the toy soldier number. In one holiday season, the Rockettes go through 15,000 pairs of those red cheeks. Also, of their numerous other outfits, the Santa Claus costumes—which weigh 40 pounds each—are the only one they get to wear flat shoes with.

11. The Radio City Rockettes also employ live camels, sheep, and a donkey.

For the Living Nativity number, which closes the show and involves a parade of robed dancers and animals walking below the North Star, the production trots out a few four-legged celebrities, including Ted the camel, who’s held his role for two decades and is said to be a bit of a prima donna. In 2015, for the first time, the Archbishop of New York blessed the show’s animals before opening night. During the show’s run, the animals actually live in Radio City and take walks outside on the streets in the wee hours each morning.

12. It’s incredibly difficult to make it as a Radio City Rockette.

Hundreds of women audition every spring for 80 cast-member spots (though just 36 dancers perform at each show), and even Rockettes who want to return for another season must re-audition with no guarantee of a placement. Applicants must be skilled in tap, jazz, ballet, and modern dance, and must stand between 5’6” and 5’10½” without shoes. Plenty of hopefuls audition multiple times before they make the cut.

Over the course of each show, every dancer changes costumes up to eight times, does more than 200 high kicks, and handles her own hair and makeup—multiple times a day for more than a month. Plus, they do all of this while maintaining chipper smiles, doing promotional appearances, and spreading good cheer.