ALIVE & KICKING

After more than 60 years, the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall remain an imperishable tradition: all teeth and smiles, high kicks and breathtaking costume changes. As they prepared for their new season, MARION HUME saw what it takes to be a dream girl...
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Ladies. Ready. And smile! The dogs are wrapping." On cue, as a few motley canines jump through their last hoops and scamper off, stage left, 72 impossibly long legs come high-kicking out of the wings, stage right. For this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is New York's Radio City Easter show, and these are the world-famous Rockettes.

The 36 Rockettes, now lined up and kicking to eye level right across the 144-foot stage, have followed acts more glamorous than a dog troupe. But, hey, the kids love Brackney's Madcap Mutts. And dogs are better than camels. During the Radio City Christmas spectacular, which plays 85 times (compared with the Easter show's brief two-week season), the Rockettes have to shimmy in and out of seven changes of spangling leotards right next to a stable housing live camels from the nativity scenes. The smell can be a little ripe at times.

But the camels, the dogs, the Easter Rabbit (played by a black dancer who describes him-self as the Chocolate Bunny), they are just the extras. What the folks really come to see (as many as 36,000 in a single day during the Christmas season, when there are six shows daily) are the girls in the bellboy costumes, the bunny costumes, the glittering Twenties-style fringed costumes, the girls who make up the quick-changing, high-kicking Rockettes.

Rockettes smile and kick, smile and kick, and have done so ever since Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel first brought a dance troupe called the Missouri Rockets to New York City, put them on what was then the biggest stage in the world and renamed them the Radio City Rockettes. The debut show was in December 1932, and teams of immaculate and identical Rockettes, some 2,000 to date, have danced here at Christmas and Easter ever since.

There have been mother Rockettes whose daughters have grown up to be Rockettes. There have been Rockette sisters. And, right now, there are Rockette twins (although they are currently dancing in the troupe's satellite show at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas).

Perhaps the Rockettes represent the very last, good old fashioned American dream. They are every girl who has ever grown up learn- ing ballet and tap in Nowheresville, USA, with nothing but a dream of coming to New York City and being famous. And so the Rockettes are, if not famous individually. Their appeal is the uniformity, the illusion they create of 72 legs dancing with one mind.

They wear identical hats, identical corseted leotards and identical tap shoes. Back in Roxy Rothafel's day, a girl wasn't even allowed on the line with a suntan in case she stood out. These days there are black girls and Oriental girls, although one is hard-pressed to notice from the audience, what with all those legs scissoring at high speed. From the audience, all Rockettes appear to have been created as equal. They are anonymous as soon as they step out through the stage door. "Yet the scale of this dream is pretty exciting," says Howard Kolins, who produces the show. "To be on the map in front of 6,000 people, three times a day, that is something."

Yet aside from the troupe, each Rockette's story is her own. Here's Susan from upstate New York in her tenth year as a Rockette, who says she dreamed of being a ballet dancer and yet she loves the precision line where "you can't give that little bit more, where you have to be right there with the other girls". Here's Patrice from Fairfield, Connecticut, who loves attending weddings and "showers" across the country because Rockettes come from all over the place. And here's Cheryl, from Archdale, North Carolina, "a town with one stop light", who had a big feature in her local newspaper when she made it to the great stage. "But I'm still the same hometown girl: I'm just Cheryl," she giggles. Here they all are, day in, day out, pre- paring for the gruelling Easter schedule, where a single dance number can include a hundred head-high kicks.

Age is not an issue. From one's seat in the auditorium, they are all fresh-faced American girls, but close up, well, there are years on a few of them. The youngest, Ashley, is 18. And the oldest? "If you can keep up, we'll have you. We have Rockettes working as hard as kids half their age. And the older ones have better work habits," says Kolins.

Up close, of course, they are not all the same, and that's the skill of it. Rockettes range in height from five-foot-five to five-foot-nine. The taller girls dance in the middle to give the illusion of identical height, and the hems of each outfit are the same height from the floor.

Bonnie Sinclair, director of costume and wardrobe, who has to calculate measurement against the effect of perspective as viewed from an auditorium that is 160-foot deep, says her job is a science. There's as much precision in the costumes as there is in the dance routines. She runs the costume shop, a factory within the huge complex of the Radio City Music Hall in mid-town Manhattan, "where we build the costumes to last. And I say build, not sew." Each Rockette, plus two understudies, has her own costume; each one a work of cantilevered engineering. Heavy industrial zippers are concealed under rhinestones and greased with zipper wax to aid swift changing. The rhinestones are punched in by hand.

This Easter, there is a particular challenge. A number called "Dancing in Diamonds", last seen in 1982, has been re-introduced. The shimmering, black-and-silver costumes were originally designed by Cher's favourite designer, Bob Mackie, a glamorous chap who never met a bugle bead he didn't like. Remaking the costumes has, Sinclair admits, been a headache: "The technology has changed. The black diamonds in the original costumes are now pro-hibitively expensive." Instead, rhinestones have had to be applied to silver trims and to the sweep of a scarf each Rockette uses in the routine. How many sequins? "We started off ordering 20 gross." There are 144 rhinestones in a gross. Every one is applied by hand to the 23 yards which make up each costume.

The resulting costumes are spectacular, and spectacularly heavy. And that's not all. They are positively lethal. "Rockettes get whipped by all this beading. They don't like it too much when it gets them in the face."

The task of finishing the "Dancing in Diamonds" costumes is not complete by the first dress rehearsal; one Rockette goes through her paces in a nude leotard as the costume shop rapidly stitches the final outfit. Kolins takes note. He can see from the back of the auditorium if one Rockette has got the wrong tilt to her hat. It has to be right.

Kolins has his own Rockette tale to tell, one with a cute ending in the small shape of a brand new baby he brings along to rehearsal. Baby Sam's mother is Carol who, even in civvies, as she is today, has a stature that spells "Rockette". "I was working with Carol for two years before our first date, and she was a Rockette and breathtakingly beautiful, and, like many men intimidated by beautiful women, I thought she would have nothing to do with me. But then it got real and good and mutual between us, and that she was a Rockette was the icing on the cake." When Carol was a tap-dancing banana tree, he recalls, "I used to leave little notes in her shoes."

Kolins never dreamed he would wind up at Radio City. He had always wanted to direct Shakespeare and hated musical theatre, but he needed the job. "And I've fallen in love with Radio City. It's an amazing toy, created at a time when people had a certain vision."

More than 60 years on, that vision is intact, except that what was a breathtaking fantasy is now as camp as Christmas. Or as Easter. In the opening, "The Glory of Easter", the Rockettes join the rest of the cast dressed in nuns' habits to form an enormous cross. "It's outrageous, it's gorgeous, it's showbiz," Kolins says.

And so it is. Transcendence is ours this pre-Easter day. We have gone to Radio City Music Hall as cynics, thinking that 36 women high kicking in bellboy suits will only make us giggle. And yet we, the hardbitten, have thawed. The photo-grapher, who I have seen inadvertently appearing as the 37th Rockette when he went too far out of the wings, has a smile on his face as wide as that of a grinning dancing girl by the end of the show. And I'm singing "Happy feet. I've got those happy feet" in my head as we cross Radio City's majestic Deco foyer, where Wesley Snipes once sold popcorn. And as we got on to 6th Avenue, something possesses me to ask the photographer if he can tap dance.

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