The Rockettes: A Century of Eye-high Kicks and Christmas Magic

written by Bill Kopp

The Rockettes are an American institution. Founded in 1925, the high-kicking precision dance company moved to New York City in 1932; ever since, The Rockettes have wowed audiences with performances at the historic Radio City Music Hall. And with its breathtaking combination of tradition and timeliness, the Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular has been dazzling audiences for nearly 90 years.

For many dancers, joining the Rockettes is a lifelong dream. And that dream came true for Danielle Betscher when she became a member of the company in 2013. "I saw The Rockettes in the Christmas Spectacular for the first time right around my 13th birthday," says Betscher, who lives in Las Vegas when she's not in New York City working with The Rockettes. "That was my turning point."

But Danielle's lifelong pursuit had begun long before that fateful moment. "I started dancing at the age of two," she says. Her family was living in a remote corner of Kentucky, and Danielle was home schooled. "I wasn't anywhere near a dance studio for kids my age, so my mom actually started with 'dance on VCR tape.'" Danielle attended those TV dance classes in her family's living room, post-lunch, pre-nap for two years. "Even at two years old, every single day I was popping that VCR in," she says. And that dedication impressed her parents: they realized, "Oh, she's invested!"

Once the family moved to Ohio, Danielle enrolled in a regular dance study program. "I was a competitive dancer, so I was in the studio almost every single evening, seven days a week," she recalls.

Along the way, Danielle couldn't help but become aware of The Rockettes. "I knew who they were," she admits, "but I'd only ever seen them on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I'd never actually seen them dance in the Christmas Spectacular, so I hadn't put those things together. When she did witness their performance live and in person, she was seated in the audience with her family. "And the first kick line that I ever saw, I was in awe," she says. "I was mesmerized. These women were just so powerful and elegant!"

Danielle's beloved Paw Paw was sitting next to her, and he turned to her and said, "You know, if you wanted to, someday you could do that." And she knew he was right. At that moment, Danielle decided for certain that she wanted to go professional.

At age 16, Danielle says that she "put everything else aside and started attending the Rockettes Summer Intensive." That program -- now known as the Rockettes Conservatory Program -- provides intensive study in the company's inimitable style. According to the Rockettes' official website, the Conservatory Program creates "an inclusive talent pipeline by eliminating barriers to entry, investing in promising dancers, and attracting the best dancers from all backgrounds."

Danielle attended four of those intensive programs in the space of three summers, and then at age 17 she started auditioning for the Christmas Spectacular. "Technically," she admits, "you have to be 18 years old to make it as a Rockette for the Christmas Spectacular, so I knew that I couldn't make it. But I wanted to get my face in the room and be able to experience what a real audition is like." Then as now, those who auditioned were required to be proficient in ballet, tap, and jazz as well as other dance styles. "It's always very helpful to be well-rounded," Danielle says.

That initial set of auditions went as well as it could have for Danielle. "I actually made it to the end of that two-day process," she says. "We went from over 1,000 women at the beginning to maybe 30-40 by the end. And that was my moment when I said, 'I'm invested, and they're invested in me; let's go for this!"

Danielle returned the next year, now old enough to qualify. But she was cut in the first round of auditions. She realized she would have to work even harder. "So I worked my patootie off that summer, and when they had another audition that August, I was there again."

The third time proved to be the charm. "I made it to the end," Danielle recalls with pride. "Five days later I got the call offering me a job as a Rockette in New York City!" Fresh out of high school, she was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. "I had just graduated, and here I was moving to New York City just a couple months later. It was something that I had dreamed about since I was a little girl, and it's still surreal to think about."

Danielle's first Christmas Spectacular with The Rockettes was in 2013. The run-up to the shows is an intensive period for the members of the precision dance company. "We rehearse seven hours a day for six weeks leading up to the opening," she says. "Our rehearsals are pretty demanding, but they ease us in. By the end of it, as a line we are strong and ready to begin performances." The 90-minute production opens November 18 at Radio City Music Hall.

Danielle says that the camaraderie among members of The Rockettes is strong. "I'd always heard about 'the sisterhood,' and wondered what that meant," she says. "Even in the first couple of weeks of my very first season, it truly blew me away just how embracing these women are." She says that all of her best friends are Rockettes. "These are women who have attended my wedding," she says. "We attend each others' major life events; we're in each others' lives." Danielle says that even among women who have long since retired from the company, "they're still very close to the people that they danced with through the Rockettes."

And that camaraderie builds upon the passion and commitment of the company. "I think it really speaks to the legacy of the Rockettes," Danielle says. We've been around since 1933, and that's just at Radio City Music Hall. You can actually say that you are a part of this company that thousands of women before you have been able to be a part of, and you can carry on that legacy."

Coming out of the pandemic period, this year's Christmas Spectacular is an opportunity to experience once again the thrill of a Rockettes performance. "It really combines tradition and new," Danielle says. "We have numbers in the show that every Rockette has performed since its inception. But then that's combined with modern technology and modern choreography, and it's all smashed together in this wild performance."

The dazzling and technically demanding "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" number has been part of the show every year since 1933, "with the same choreography, the same design of costumes," Danielle says. "As a performer, it's a powerful moment knowing I am doing the same movement that women back in 1933 were able to do, and I think the audience feels that as well."

A newer number, "New York at Christmas" features a life-size double-decker sightseeing bus onstage. "We Rockettes ride that bus around the stage, we get off, we perform our iconic eye-high kicks, and there's fireworks!" The whole experience is a journey from old-school Hollywood glamour and elegance to present-day New York City, and back again. "What makes the Christmas Spectacular so special is that we're able to make that span," Danielle says. "It all works perfectly, because the theme is the holiday season, joy and happiness."

When asked to share her favorite thing about being part of The Rockettes, Danielle Betscher doesn't hesitate. "It's that I know that I'm bringing joy to 6,000 people -- sometimes four times a day at Radio City Music Hall -- even if it's for just 90 minutes. They can let everything else go and just be awash in Christmas magic."

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