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Glitz, glamour, aches, pains: One Rockette's holidays

Monday, December 19, 2005

NEW YORK -- There she is -- ninth from the right -- now a toy soldier, now a reindeer, now a mannequin so breathtaking she'd make Barbie jealous. She stands and kicks. She sits and kicks. She links arms, clasps wrists, grasps waists and kicks.

In a city that quickly humbles performers, Debra Smith, at 34, is a pro -- "better than some, not as good as others," she says. But she's a Rockette, and that's saying something. She's one of the world renowned, wide-smiled, long-legged, clickety-clacking workhorses of big-time entertainment. Like the other 35 dancers on her kick line, she not only razzle-dazzles, she represents: even as showtime bears down, she's the all-American gal -- friendly, earnest, eager to help. After all, this is New York. This is Radio City. This is Christmas.

Christmas-in-New-York is equal parts legend and commerce -- a tale spun by, and fulfilled in, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes. Santa emcees the show and the big close is a supersized Nativity scene. It draws an estimated 1.2 million people a year to 220-plus sold-out performances over nine weeks, through Jan. 2.

As a member of one of two Rockette lines, Smith dances half those performances -- as many as five shows a day, 300 jaw-dropping eye-high kicks a show. In between, she gets iced down and warmed up, tended to by trainers, staff physicians, and physical therapists. There are dressers -- one for every two Rockettes -- and there are launderers and handlers to smooth her every step from a sublet apartment in Queens to the gigantic stage in the stunningly restored icon of a theater.

Today's Rockettes have freedoms denied their heavily-chaperoned predecessors who lived above Radio City when it offered its first Christmas Spectacular in 1933. But they're as well managed as players for the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers (both teams also handled by Cablevision, owner of Radio City Entertainment).

"We consider them athletes," says Karen Affinito, Radio City spokeswoman, explaining the company's protective arm. "They're doing a really intense run of a really intense show."

In two and a half seasons as a Rockette, Smith recalls only one glitch -- a dancer whose shoe slipped off during an opening number. But no step was missed, no giggling rippled through the kick line as the dancer got her shoe back on. "I don't think the audience even noticed," she says.

The line is perfect off stage, too. As an official handler kept tabs on her every word in a recent pre-show interview, Smith extolled the thrill of the work while stepping easily past inquiries about potentially untidy matters. Management likes to keep certain things tucked up as tight and unseen as a line dancer's hair under the multitude of headdresses. Salary? "We don't really disclose ..." Diet? "We stay healthy ...." Dress size? "We know what a Rockette should look like ..." (She does concede that at 5'8" she's midrange in the Rockette height requirement.) Religion? "I think of myself as spiritual ..."

But even for this veteran, Christmas at Radio City is not just another gig -- it's a gift exchange, showbiz style. The dancer offers up her struts and shimmies -- and the grit, grace, and determination that mask her aches, pains, and panic over last-minute choreography changes. She holds them out to the toddler clapping on his father's lap, to the Connecticut bridge club ladies, to the folks in from Philadelphia by tour bus. In return she accepts the ooh's and whistles, the shouts and cheers -- the actors' fuel. "You feel the electricity and the energy," says Smith. "We are giving something to them -- our gifts -- and they are giving something back to us -- their appreciation. And it's a beautiful exchange. That's why I'm a performer."

"I don't think the audience knows we can see them so well," she says of the hordes that come day and night. Sometimes, the audience gives a little performance of its own as the cast spies a child dancing in the aisle or mimicking the Rockettes' famous rag-doll routine. Says the pro, eyes a-twinkle, "It's precious."

Smith grew up in a Rockette-loving Ft. Wayne, Ind. family who called her to the TV with each Macy's Thanksgiving parade or Jerry Lewis special. "'The Rockettes are on! The Rockettes are on!' " she recalls her parents' summons. She began tap dancing at 4 and continued to study dance through college in Indiana at Ball State University.

Rockettes are proficient at jazz, tap, and ballet, and though Smith considers herself a dancer first, she's worked hard to master voice and acting, disciplines essential to scoring Broadway-level work. Work life for her has been a succession of training, auditioning, teaching dance, and doing odd jobs for sustenance. She's traveled the world performing in "Sesame Street Live" and "Fame the Musical."

She originally came to New York at 26. "I wanted to see if I could work in the industry," she explains. She immediately landed the Rockette part after a cattle call audition that drew 500 dancers. "It was a dream come true," she says of the opportunity to dance at Radio City. "There's no stage like it. The first time we rehearsed I'll never forget looking out into those 6,000 seats and thinking 'Oh my gosh. I'm really here.' " She danced the Christmas Spectacular for two years in the late '90s before spending four seasons in the Broadway version of "A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden. Ready now to shift into teaching and a new life in the "greener pastures" of Holyoke, Mass., where she and her fiance now make their home, she figured she'd give the Radio City Spectacular one more season.

Just what constitutes "spectacular" in this town at this time is anybody's guess. But for sheer effort, you've got to hand it to Radio City. In the kind of "variety-show-bordering-on-camp" format long gone from the national experience, the company puts it all out there. The crowd eats it up: There's the tradition. The innovation. The slightly dated humor. There are the 1,200 pairs of sparkling pantyhose per season and the elves played by real -- as a press release proclaims -- "Little People." There are actual skaters on an actual skating rink, and fake snow that even dusts the audience. And then there's the livestock: three camels, two donkeys, six sheep, and a real horse to draw a real Central Park carriage.

Most spectacular, of course, are the kick lines -- the gathering momentum, the physical marvel, the merging of music, light, dance, and dress in a moment of applause-filled awe available only now, only here.

But there's more. For the close, the Rockettes suddenly put away all the trimmings and, as they've done since their first Spectacular, reenact the Christmas story live, complete with animals. A booming voice-over speaks at length of Jesus and his influence on history. It's a startling departure from the ubiquitously secularized Christmas that even Christians have come to expect. "It's very powerful," says Smith. "Seeing a story like that depicted -- you can't help but be affected by it."

Thus, the smiling Debra Smith and her kick line once again deliver the original Gift of Christmas in their own, spectacular wrapping.

Rockettes facts 1. The Radio City Rockettes first appeared on stage in 1925 as the "Missouri Rockets," and debuted in St. Louis. 2. Radio City Music Hall opened on Dec. 27, 1932, and the Rockettes were there, one of 17 acts that included Martha Graham and the Flying Wallendas. 3. The illusion that the Rockettes are all one height is created by placing the tallest dancers in the middle, the shortest women on either end, and the rest placed in order of decreasing height. 4. The Rockettes perform every year at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Columbus Day Parade and the NBC Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony. 5. More than 3,000 women have hoofed it as a Rockette since 1932. 6. To be considered for a Rockette job, you must be between 5'6" and 5'10 ½", and must be able to dance jazz, tap, ballet and modern. 7. In "The Christmas Spectacular," Rockettes change costumes eight times and sometimes have only 80 seconds to do so. -- Andrea Gurwitt


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