How I teach the Rockette style

Kristin Altfather and student Aimee Lane


Symbols of the holiday season in New York City, the Radio City Rockettes are, not surprisingly,  role models for many young girls around the country. They’re extremely skilled dancers whose poise and old-school elegance are rare these days. And while it’s often a dancer’s dream to don sparkly tights and bright-red lipstick and perform eye-high kicks at Radio City Music Hall, the height requirement is strict—5' 6"–5' 10.5"—and competition is stiff. But incorporating elements of the Rockettes’ precise style can give your dancers the detail they need to become better performers on any stage.

Modeled after the Ziegfeld Follies, the Rockettes have retained the same uniformity and showy style since their 1925 beginnings in St. Louis. Now based in NYC, the Rockettes are a national holiday tradition, and The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is performed across the United States. “The choreography gets updated through the years to stay current,” says Kristin Altfather, a Rockette assistant choreographer. “But the style hasn’t changed since the beginning. There are parts of the repertoire—like the ‘Wooden Soldiers’—that haven’t changed since 1933.”

Each Rockette performs the exact same moves, and Altfather describes the Rockette style as precision dancing. “In our world, there isn’t one star; we are 36 stars all dancing alike,” she says. To achieve this uniformity, choreography cues are very specific.

“We talk about at what angle your shoulders should be, where your cheekbones turn—if you tilt your head or keep your eyes downstage—and even where your pinky finger is,” she says. “It’s that detailed.”

But more than just the moves, a Rockette’s place in line is extremely specific. Altfather says: “There are lines and numbers in a grid on the floor, and you have to pay attention to the depths and travels. If you’re standing on a line, you could be toeing, arching or heeling the line, or the ball of your foot is on the line. You might travel three and a half numbers with a particular step—your mind is always going.”

New Rockettes learn what Altfather calls “guiding technique”: using peripheral vision to follow and stay precisely in line with the dancer to the right. This technique is used especially when performing series of eye-high kicks, a hallmark of Rockette choreography. When teaching these kicks at the Rockette Summer Intensive (a six-week program for high school dancers), Altfather often starts with their more basic cousin, the strut-kick, to ensure students keep their hips even and chests upright.

Here, Altfather and student Aimee Lane demonstrate how to properly link arms, stand like a Rockette.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, photo courtesy MSG Phots

The Line

Rockettes are placed in height order—the tallest woman in the center, and the shortest women on either end. This creates an illusion that all women are the same height, even though there may be a four-inch difference between the center and ends. Women kick to their own heights—for strut-kicks they’re always at 90 degrees, and eye-high kicks are at each woman’s eye-level. Even though they’re kicking to various heights, it looks like all toes hit the same line.


The Link-Up

Barely place your fingertips on the fabric of your neighbor’s costume—left hands are higher than right hands. Keep your fingertips closed and thumbs in for a clean look—if you were wearing white gloves, the colored material should not show through. If you’re on the end, put your hands on your hips; elbow forward, thumb forward and fingers back.

The Bevel

Pull out of your supporting leg and hip, and lift your chest. Your right big toe is next to your left big toe, and your right knee is pulling across toward your left hip bone—your inner thighs are working like crazy. Your heel should not come forward.



Originally from Rochester, New York, Kristin Altfather has been part of the Rockette family for 16 seasons. She attended Point Park University in Pittsburgh, and before joining the Rockettes in 1996, she performed with the show EFX, starring Michael Crawford, at the MGM Grand. With the Rockettes, she’s performed in Nashville, Myrtle Beach, Cincinnati, Detroit and New York City. Altfather has been an assistant choreographer for the Nashville Christmas Spectacular for 10 years, and this year she returns to New York City to perform on the line.

From Clarksburg, New Jersey, Aimee Lane, 17, has been a Rockette Summer Intensive student for three years.


(Photo by Matthew Murphy at Radio City Music Hall in NYC)

Dancer Health
Photo by Igor Burlak, courtesy of Tamara King

A raspy voice and sore muscles are not obligatory for teachers, but that's often what happens after hours of teaching. Being a dance teacher is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. Unfortunately, whether it's because you're pressed for time or that you're focused solely on your students, self-care isn't always the top priority. You might think you don't have time to attend to your personal well-being, but what you really don't have time for is an injury. Here are seven strategies that will help keep you injury-free and at the top of your game.

Keep reading... Show less
It takes strength and suppleness to reach new heights of flexibility. (Photo by Emily Giacalone; dancer: Dorothy Nunez)

There is a flexibility freak show going on in the dance world. Between out-of-this-world extensions on “So You Think You Can Dance" and a boundaries-pushing contemporary scene, it seems the bar for bendiness gets higher every year.

Keep reading... Show less

When I am lying down on my back with my feet together and knees apart and press down on my knees, my hips pop. It feels really good. However, now when my hips don't pop, they hurt, and my lower back starts to hurt as well. What do I do to get them to pop, and is it even healthy?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz

Bobbi Jene is another poignant film to add to this year's must-see list of dance documentaries.

After 10 years living in Israel and dancing with Ohad Naharin's Batsheva Dance, American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith decides to leave the company –and the life she's come to know–in search of finding her own path as a dancer and choreographer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Photo by Jim Lafferty; modeled by Sydney Magruder, courtesy of Broadway Dance Center

"If you don't have strong abdominal muscles, you sag into your lower back, your pelvis usually tips and you're hanging out and slumped into your hip joints," says Deborah Vogel, movement analyst, neuromuscular expert and co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City. "It just has this whole chain reaction."

The effects of poor core strength can be dire for dancers: from weak and tight hip flexors, which negatively impact extensions, to lower-back discomfort and misaligned shoulders and necks. "Having well-toned abdominals for your posture is the primary reason why you should do stabilizing exercises," says Vogel. "It will allow you to bring your pelvis into correct alignment and good posture."

Keep reading... Show less
In Motion's senior company dancers and Candice after a showcase performance in Bermuda, (2016). Photo courtesy of Culmer-Smith

When I was 23, an e-mail circulated among my former college dance classmates at Towson University, regarding a teaching position as the jazz director at the In Motion School of Dance studio in Bermuda. I applied, and after a few e-mails, I got offered the job.

Four weeks later, I packed up my tiny little car in Denver, where I was a dancer for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, and drove across the country to my hometown in Maryland, before flying out for my new life in Bermuda.

Looking back now, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn't have time to think through how I should prepare and what I needed to do to officially apply for a work permit. I was mostly concerned with how I was going to pack all my clothes and belongings into two suitcases. If I could go back, I wish I would've had a more specific guide to what teaching in another country entailed.

In an effort to share my experience, here's what I wish I would've known before I left and what I learned over my 10 years living and working as a dance teacher abroad.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
At age 12, doctors advised Paige Fraser to stop dancing and have surgery. Instead, she chose physical therapy and team of chiropractors and massage specialists to help work through her condition. She has just begun her 5th season with Visceral Dance, based in Chicago.

Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine, when viewed from the back, has one or more curves. The vertebrae are abnormally rotated, which creates twisting and more prominent visibility of the rib cage on one side, and it is most commonly seen in adolescents ages 10 and older. Most cases cannot be reversed, but they can be controlled, for example dancer Paige Fraser who despite suffering from severe scoliosis, has thrived as a dancer. Dance teachers can play an essential role in spotting the condition at an early stage.

“Teachers can help to notice that scoliosis is there in the first place," says Sophia Fatouros, a New York City–based dance teacher and and former professional ballet dancer who has struggled with scoliosis since she was 12. “Parents do not always see their children in tight clothes, like leotards."

Keep reading... Show less





Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!