For almost 60 years, time has stood still at Radio City Music Hall for the high-kicking Rockettes. They are a snapshot slice of Americana, one of the world's most enduring dance troupes.
But onstage, none of the 36 Rockettes ever stops moving - especially during the grueling rehearsals for their Christmas show, a tradition as popular as the annual lighting of the tree across the street in Rockefeller Center.This year's show kicks off the Radio City Music Hall's yearlong 60th-anniversary celebration.
"On count six, girls, don't forget, that's my pet peeve!" bellows Violet Holmes, who has been with the Rockettes for 46 years, first as a dancer and now as senior choreographer.
"Girls! That precision was off! Wrong! Girls! You're late with your kicks!" she says. A few of the troupe are over 45 but they are still called "girls."
Holding a microphone, Holmes strides back and forth across the broad stage of Radio City, barking reprimands and demonstrating steps to a line of dancers in sweatshirts and leggings.
They must learn a complex series of dance routines and kicks with military-like precision and perform them in five shows a day, each lasting 90 minutes.
Backstage, carpenters hammer massive sets that will re-create old-fashioned holiday splendor just inches away from the busy streets of midtown Manhattan.
But the backbone of the show are the ever-smiling, eternally young (at least from the house seats) Rockettes. Only the faces have changed since the Rockettes made their first appearance onstage at Radio City when the art deco landmark opened on Dec. 27, 1932. Rockettes call it simply, "the hall."
The Rockettes were actually born in 1925, when 16 precision dancers debuted in St. Louis as the "Missouri Rockets." Then they became the "Roxyettes" and finally the Rockettes when they came to Radio City.
They've long since passed from cornball to almost cool. Recently, more than 50 Rockettes (they include alternate dancers) lined the halls of NBC in a complicated bit for "Late Night With David Letterman." One Rockette pulled a soda from a machine and passed the can down the high-kicking line until it reached Letterman in his studio.
"The Rockettes have maintained their prestige over the years because they represent kind of a fairyland," said Holmes, taking a break in one of the empty seats in the cavernous hall.
"It's a tradition the girls themselves love. They're a family and Americans consider the girls part of their family."
But the life of a Rockette is not all Cinderella. It's more like a cross between an old-fashioned Broadway hoofer and an airline attendant.
Susanne Doris has been with the Rockettes more than 12 years but does not like to give the exact figure because it might reveal her age. She meets the height requirement: no taller than 5-foot-8 and no shorter than 5-foot-5.
Doris must periodically weigh in. She is required to maintain a certain weight for her height (between 125 and 130 pounds) and a certain percentage of bodyfat (between 13 percent and 22 percent.) None of the Rockettes have individual dressing rooms. They all change costumes in one large room.
"It's become a career," said Doris, who taught dance on Staten Island before she submitted to the rigorous audition process for the Rockettes, in which a thorough grounding in jazz, tap and ballet must be demonstrated. "You have to love it. There's no other feeling like being part of a troupe that's so well-loved."