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)

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

A slow and fluid adagio can captivate an audience. When done well, it demonstrates tremendous strength and control, while allowing dancers quiet and subtle moments of expression. But adagio work can be challenging and nerve-racking even for the most seasoned professionals. Using imagery like Wagner's idea of the root system and other simple techniques will give students the tools they need to achieve freedom in their adagio. They might even grow to love it.

Hold With Placement

To create and sustain adagio movements, dancers need proper alignment and a strong core. At the Pennsylvania Ballet Academy in Camp Hill, co-artistic director Vanessa Zahorian starts young beginner dancers with an eight-count développé in each direction first facing the barre at 45 degrees, and then with one hand. "With the lower levels, you need to go slowly so they hold each position and see what it feels like," she says. "The longer they hold it, the easier it gets. Then they can start to move through the positions and add more complicated steps."

Zahorian emphasizes the need for good placement and talks to students about the importance of using their inner thighs and backs of the legs, mentioning the associated benefits of Gyrotonic. "They need to lengthen their extension from the hip socket and keep very square hips, so that everything rotates with turnout and spirals outward. The energy never stops."

At Ballet West, academy director Peter LeBreton Merz might give a 64-count adagio—sometimes 128 counts—to give dancers ample time to use their muscles. "I like a long adagio," he says. "People try to power too much and not use enough technique. When dancers are a little more tired, they are forced to think more technically and support the movements better."

Find Balance

The key to a solid adagio? "It's all about the balance," says Merz. "In ballet, the secret ingredient is to improve balance, because it affects so many things." Jumps are higher when the force is focused up in one direction. Turning, of course, is also easier when dancers are "on their leg." "Adagio helps you focus on those aspects and maintains balance through big, unsupported movements. We use it to prepare for everything else in center," he says. Merz encourages teachers to be very specific about port de bras and épaulement, since a slight difference in head and shoulder placement can affect a dancer's sense of balance as well.

Standing steadily on one foot can be especially difficult for dancers in pointe shoes. The shank may feel like a short and narrow platform that undermines a dancer's ability to establish contact with the floor. Merz tells dancers to imagine that their first and fifth metatarsals are reaching away from each other, reaching around the shank and onto the marley. For all dancers, he recommends not resting on the toes or heels, but making sure that the tailbone is centered over the ball of the foot. "Make the leg as long as possible and pull the pelvis up off the femur," he says. "It's not static or gripping, but a dynamic action."

Use Expression

Whether dancing alone or with a partner, an adagio provides the luxury of time—an organic opportunity for students to express themselves. "I like to talk about subtlety and mystery," says Wagner. "Dancers can create allure that will inspire an observer to lean in. I tell students not to 'give it away' in the preparation." In an effort to be more expansive, students might want to initiate a step with the head or shoulders. But Wagner warns against it. "There shouldn't be a movement before the movement. It's about using artistic volume control so it's not all on one level. Less is more!"

When students are tense, their adagio will be less successful. Zahorian recommends that these dancers remember to breathe through each movement. "They shouldn't inhale as they piqué, but exhale and release the energy," she says. If they are struggling to get their legs up, ask them to go back to tendu on the floor and revisit the idea of lifting to hip height with length. Or have them stand at the barre and try again there. "Most important, I like to emphasize the rhythm so that their movement isn't static. Dancing an adagio to the music can take them to another place."

Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

In 2019, dance parents are more eager than ever to observe their child's progress, and stay up-to-date with the ins and outs of what's happening in the classroom. That means yearly recitals aren't always enough to keep them satisfied—especially if you have rules against visitors observing class from week to week. The solution? Visitor observation weeks. Trust us, the guardians and loved ones of your students will love you for it!

We caught up with Suzanne Blake Gerety, vice president of Kathy Blake Dance Studios and regular contributor to Dance Teacher's "Ask The Experts" column, to hear her tips on how to have a successful visitor observation week.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Adequate dorsiflexion mobility is needed to find a supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely. Getty Images

Dancers are trained to think often about the range of motion, stability and power of their extended lines: the point of the foot, the reach of the penché, the explosion of the sauté in the air. But finding that same mix of flexibility and strength in the flexed foot is just as integral to technique and injury prevention. Without adequate dorsiflexion mobility, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox