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
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.
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.
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)