From the instant they first graced the stage, the Rockettes secured their rightful place as American treasures.
Looking back, their journey has truly been a one-of-a-kind spectacle, and it’s not hard to see why. With another season of iconic Radio City performances around the corner, let’s take a second to celebrate the most famous American dance troupe to ever form a kick line.
Long before they kicked up their shoes at Radio City Music Hall, the Rockettes got their start in St. Louis. Back then, they were called “The Missouri Rockettes.”
Inspired by a British dance troupe known as “The Tiller Girls,” famed choreographer Russell Markert had a very specific vision. He wanted his troupe to be known for the utmost precision and complete uniformity. So along with top-notch dance moves, you had to have very specific measurements to make the cut.
In the 1920s (and for a pretty long time afterward), the 16 selected Rockettes had to be between 5’2″and 5’6 ½”. As the troupe continued to grow in popularity, they began a nationwide tour. At one starcrossed appearance, an audience member would soon change their fate.
By the 1930s, The Rockettes had made their way to New York City. After performing Broadway’s Rain or Shine, they were discovered by showman S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel. Their performance at the Roxy was so stellar, Rothafel convinced their “founding father” to form a new line of dancers that would stay in the Big Apple.
Just like that, they were “the hottest ticket in town.” In 1934, the “Roxyettes” became the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Shortly after that, Radio City Music Hall began showing movies, and it turned out to be a steady and career-changing gig for the girls. A movie was shown every week, accompanied by a performance by the buzzed-about Rockettes.
The more exposure they received, the more sought after they became.
Following Pearl Harbor, The Rockette ladies were some of the first entertainers who volunteered for the USO.
Entertaining the troops abroad, they performed at Copacabana, the Army Air Corps base in Pawling, New York, and at the Stage Door Canteen. They’d become so big by the 40s, they even hosted a War Bond Rally with Eleanor Roosevelt at Madison Square Garden.
In the 1950s, movies were bigger than ever. Radio City Music Hall began showing movies five times a day. With every new movie came a new Rockettes routine.
Due to their demanding schedule, Radio City Music Hall was soon their home away from home. With television becoming just as big as movies, the Rockettes were inevitably featured on the small screen regularly. Their first TV appearance was on Wide, Wide World. In 1957, they performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
With every New York tradition they took part in, they became a New York tradition themselves.
Once the 60s were in full swing, the Rockettes could do anything. Eastman Kodak created the largest color photomural of its time featuring Rockettes. It was hung in Grand Central station.
As the need for change and political activism began to define the decade, the Rockettes soon did their part to show where they stood, but in a very Rockettes way, of course. In support of the Space Age and the feminist movement, they performed a number as astronauts on the Great Stage.
Their music, dance numbers, and costumes also began to evolve. As their kicks went higher, so did their hemlines. They also showed their theatrical side, dancing as Geishas, hula dancers, bullfighters, and chimney sweeps, to name a few.
Stars also began to mix and mingle with the Rockettes on stage, especially during movie premieres. By the time they did a salute to Walt Disney, their act was so huge that Walt Disney himself came in to supervise.
Due to financial problems, Radio City began closing for extended periods. The once busy Rockettes were ready to work, so they petitioned for the right to hit the road once again.
In 1977, their wish was granted. Making their west coast debut, they performed at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. It wasn’t long before they were playing sold-out crowds in Las Vegas. Among their most famous fans, Sammy Davis Jr. attended their show almost every night.
With Radio City sinking, The Rockettes decided to save the historic theatre and proved they were more than just the most precise dance troupe around. In 1979, it was designated a New York City landmark.
By the decade’s end, The Rockettes starred in a two-hour television special with Ann-Margret. Remember A Holiday Tribute to Radio City Music Hall? It’s forever a pretty big deal.
With the fitness movement blowing up, The Rockettes were viewed as a new kind of hero.
Radio City changed its format, building shows fully around The Rockettes. In the new 90-minute stage productions, the dancers were performed in four or five numbers, four times daily, and seven days a week. They kept this grueling schedule for four weeks straight, after which, they were individually given a week off.
During the 80s, they continued performing with major celebrities, including Dick Van Dyke, Lana Turner, Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Carol Lawrence, Liberace, and Muhammad Ali. They made a cameo in the iconic movie version of Annie.
By 1988, they were everywhere. The Rockettes were not only the main event at the Super Bowl halftime show, they became the ambassadors (and legs) of L’Eggs pantyhose, appearing in lucrative national ads.
At Christmas time, no one was bigger than The Rockettes. Their famed specials, Christmas Spectacular and Easter Extravaganza continued growing in popularity and acclaim. It was also another period of change.
New routines and costumes became more reflective of the times. And Radio City Music Hall was given a makeover as well. In the most magical ways, the restoration was like being transported back to where it all began for The Rockettes in 1932.
The history preserving restoration also included some sound-shaping upgrades. Radio City did away with the dancer’s pre-recorded taps and decided to give their audience the real thing. The engineers’ solution was pretty innovative. To this day, when The Rockettes do a tap number, their custom dance shoes can be heard loud and clear, thanks to a special cavity in the heel that works as a sound transmitter.
When Radio City re-opened its doors in 1999, the Christmas Spectacular was once again the hottest ticket in town.
By the 2000s, the 75th Anniversary of the Rockettes rolled around. 2,500 women joined in, performing as Radio City Rockettes. In 2001, the Rockettes performed at George W. Bush’s inauguration in D.C., dancing down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They were invited back to the Capital to do it perform once again in 2005.
In 2006, Rockette history was made. Linda Haberman was the first woman to become the solo director and choreographer, which was a major deal in more ways than one. Once a student at the School of American Ballet, Haberman went on to join the original line-up of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. Soon after, she became the famed choreographer’s right-hand woman, assisting in his iconic routines.
With moving forward in mind, Haberman set out to transform The Rockettes into a contemporary dance company. As their range expanded, demand and respect for what the iconic dance troupe could do only grew. With Haberman’s help, the first touring productions of the Christmas Spectacular began. And soon, a new and exciting dance education program, The Rockettes Summer Intensive, was created.
For the first time in history, aspiring professional dancers could learn from the national treasures and even train with them. More than 60 Rockettes have been discovered from the program.
By 2015, they headlined an eight-week production, The New York Spring Spectacular, for the first time. Laura Benanti and Dancing with the Stars’ Derek Hough joined in.
In 2016, they were front and center on the Great Stage in The New York Spectacular. And they somehow seemed busier than ever. In recent years, they’ve performed with people like Oprah, Heidi Klum, and Michael Bublé. They’ve appeared on The TODAY Show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Project Runway, and America’s Got Talent.
To become one of these dazzling dancers today, you have to be between 5’6″and 5’10 ½” to make the cut. You also need to be proficient in tap, modern, jazz and ballet. And the competition is unsurprisingly steep.
If you want to see what’s made The Rockettes a household name since 1925, The Christmas Spectacular is still going strong. And it’s totally worth the hype.