A High-stepping History of the Rockettes

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 
The Rockettes
The Radio City Rockettes perform at the 89th Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting pre-tape at Rockefeller Center Nov. 30, 2021. The popular show was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. James Devaney/GC Images/Getty Images

Anyone who's ever visited New York City in the wintertime (or seen any movie set between Labor Day and New Year's in Manhattan) likely has a few key mental images lingering from the experience: the Rockefeller Center ice rink, a snowy Central Park and the inconceivably synchronized legs of the Rockettes.

Since 1932, the famed dance troupe has played an integral part of Christmas in the Big Apple, but the history of the iconic ensemble dates back a decade earlier, hundreds of miles from the city that never sleeps. Here's a brief history on Radio City Hall's resident showstoppers.


A Start in St. Louis

It's hard to imagine the Rockettes originating anywhere other than New York City, but the iconic group got its start several states west, in Missouri, St. Louis to be exact. The year was 1925, and choreographer Russell Markert (who remained at the helm of the ensemble until his retirement in 1971), decided to put together a chorus line that exemplified American ideals of the era: glamour, flair and over-the-top theatrics.

Markert drew inspiration from The Tiller Girls, a British dance troupe formed in 1894 by John Tiller. The goal was to assemble a group of petite female dancers (the original height requirement was between 5-feet, 2-inches and 5-feet, 6-and-a-half inches, though today's dancers are between 5-feet, 6-inches and 5-feet, 10-and-a-half inches) with superior skills in tap, modern, jazz and ballet. Markert envisioned a line of scene-stealers uniformly executing movements with perfect precision. Starting with just 16 members (the number grew to 36 over the years), the "Missouri Rockets" debuted in St. Louis and traveled to New York City to perform in the Broadway show, "Rain or Shine." It was there that the troupe caught the eye of showman S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel.


Rothafel was so impressed, he wasn't about to let the talented troupe go, so he joined forces with Markert to create a NYC-based branch of the Rockets. That's exactly what happened in the early 1930s: Three troupes took over New York City, and Rothafel moved two to Radio City Music Hall's opening night on Dec. 27, 1932. The demand to see the dancers was no joke; 100,000 people reportedly wanted a seat in the theater, but only 6,200 were allowed entry.

The Rockettes originated in St. Louis as the Roxyettes, and then moved to New York City where they became The Radio City Rockettes.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The Birth of the Rockettes

NYC's Rockets were originally known as the Roxyettes, per Rothafel's signature pseudonym, but they officially became the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in 1934. As the venue's profile began to rise over the course of the decade, the Rockettes gained major acclaim, opening premieres for films like "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "King Kong" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," with over-the-top stage productions.

As the United States entered World War II in the 1940s, the Rockettes became more than just a weekly treat for theatergoers; according to their website, they were "among the first entertainers to volunteer for the United Service Organizations (USO)." The dancers traveled overseas and performed at local military bases and large-scale venues, entertaining the troops with their specific stage style.


In the 1950s, the Rockettes' schedules became unprecedentedly demanding. Radio City Music Hall had the dancers performing along with each new movie premiere, and there were sometimes as many as five performances a day. To accommodate their round-the-clock work schedules, the venue included a 26-bed dormitory, cafeteria, recreation area, tailor shop and hospital with medical staff.

As television became a major cultural touchstone for many American households, the Rockettes made their small screen debut, appearing on NBC's "Wide, Wide World," and dancing in the very first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1957, (literally) kicking off a longstanding tradition.

As cultural and social change swept the nation, the Rockettes' appearance and style became fluid to reflect the transformative era. They appeared onstage as Geisha girls, hula dancers, bull fighters, chimney sweeps and even can-can dancers, and they danced as astronauts in a salute to both feminism and the Space Age.

The schedule for the Rockettes is grueling and performers are required to be able to kick up to 1,200 times a day and change costumes in less than 78 seconds.
Ben Gabbe/Getty Images


The Move to the Big Time

In the 1970s, the Rockettes were suddenly faced with a lot of spare time: The management at Radio City began closing the theater for weeks at a time, prompting the troupe to petition for the right to take their show on the road during the venue's dark periods. They were granted that victory, and made their first trip west in 1977, appearing at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and later selling out theaters in Las Vegas.

While they were out west, Radio City faced such financial turmoil, it was on the brink of a permanent shut-down. But the Rockettes returned to help save the space, and in 1979, it was designated a New York City landmark. While Radio City stopped showing movies in the 1980s, its 90-minute stage shows heavily featured the Rockettes, four times a day, seven days a week, for four weeks at a time.


In addition to their demanding Radio City schedule, the Rockettes traveled on the road too, performing again in Vegas and Lake Tahoe, as well as on major televised spectacles like the 1988 Super Bowl halftime show. Radio City got a major makeover in the 1990s, and the Rockettes solidified their reputation as seasonal fixtures with annual performances in the Christmas Spectacular and Easter Extravaganza.

In 2001, the Rockettes reached another major milestone, performing at the presidential inauguration of George W. Bush (they did it again in 2005). In 2006, Linda Haberman became the group's very first female solo director and choreographer, notably amping up the athleticism and raising the stakes of performances. It was Haberman who first took the Christmas Spectacular on the road, bringing the Rockettes to more than 80 U.S. cities through the 2014 season. In 2015, a new eight-week production called The New York Spring Spectacular was added to their schedule, and 2016 kicked off The New York Spectacular.

The Radio City Rockettes perform during the 2018 Christmas Spectacular opening night at Radio City Music Hall on Nov. 15, 2018, in New York City.
John Lamparski/Getty Images


The Business of Being a Rockette

According to Business Insider, Rockettes are union workers and take home an average of $1,400 to $1,500 per week. Because their jobs are seasonal, that means they're only making a regular salary of $36,400 to $39,000 a year, but many dancers hold down additional jobs in the dance or fitness industry.

The work required to become and remain a Rockette is demanding to say the least; prospective dancers are encouraged to attend the Rockettes Summer Intensive Dance Program (though it's not required), to get a taste of how intense the training is. Enrolled dancers spend six hours a day learning choreography, over the course of a week. They can also take part in one-hour seminars on topics ranging from professional makeup to injury prevention. Auditions take place every spring, and even the dancers who have secured a spot in previous seasons still need to re-audition. Business Insider says once a Rockette makes the cut, she then gets right into rehearsal mode to become fit enough to kick up to 1,200 times a day, and must also learn to change costumes in less than 78 seconds.


While there are just 36 Rockettes performing onstage at any one time, there are actually 80 certified Rockettes overall: one morning cast, one afternoon cast, and eight extras or "swings," trained to fill in for the full-time dancers as needed.