Backstage with the Radio City Rockettes
Whether they’re high-kicking in sequins or marching as wooden soldiers, the Radio City Rockettes are instantly recognizable. Every year since 1932, the dancers have stunned audiences with their super-synched moves, complex choreography, and sequin-bedecked Rockettes costumes.
As part of their annual Rockettes Christmas Spectacular, the offstage action is almost as impressive as what the audience sees. The dancers perform seven fast, seamless costume changes (called quick changes) and emerge for the next song transformed into new holiday-themed characters, like velvet reindeer and sparkly snowflakes. To get all the scoop, we went behind the scenes with the Rockettes and spoke to Kim Nassif, a 14-year Rockette veteran. She told us about her favorite costumes, how to fix broken shoes on the fly, and what actually happens during a quick change.
Kim, what has been your favorite Rockettes costume so far?
“I really like the costume from the dance Snow, which we introduced in 2013. What's different about it is, though the Rockettes are known for our precision and everyone looking the same, these costumes are actually six different designs and six different colors. So all 36 Rockettes on stage are in a different costume, which is really unique and fun for us.”
How many sequins and rhinestones would you say that costume has?
“I would say hundreds. I wish I knew an exact number, but it's just beautiful, really. There's not a square inch of the costume that's not covered in sparkles. And they're [varying] sizes of squares and circles. The costume designer and our wardrobe department are amazing at figuring out what's going to shine the most.”
DID YOU KNOW? The annual fitting for each dancer’s costumes takes 1.5 to 2 hours.
Have you ever wanted to take a costume home?
“My husband actually asked if we could and make a beautiful Christmas card picture, but unfortunately it's not allowed because so much time and effort is put into [making] the costumes. Though sometimes, I sneak down and take a picture with them at the stage door.”
What’s your most complicated or impressive quick change during a Rockettes show?
“The fastest one is after the Parade of Wooden Soldiers dance into New York at Christmas. What makes that one so complicated is the domino effect fall at the end [of Parade] where we end up on the floor. When the curtain hits at the end of that dance, we’re immediately unzipping the people in front of us, undoing our hats, and skittering off the stage.
For New York at Christmas, we have a dress to get on, we change our shoes, a jacket [goes] over the dress that has to be buttoned and belted, and then we have a hat, earrings, and gloves. And that all happens in a little less than 90 seconds.”
DID YOU KNOW? It takes one full day of tech rehearsal just to practice the quick changes.
What's your favorite on-the-fly hack for repairing a costume piece between numbers?
“The Parade of Wooden Soldiers, the pants break the most often, and I've definitely seen people get sewn into them. Sometimes, the straps on top of the shoes also break and we’ll have to run over to the stage manager and get some duct tape or the dressers will have elastic they'll wrap around the shoe and sew it really quickly. We are really good at making it work and doing whatever we can to get on stage.”
Are the shoes designed specifically for each costume?
“We have a different shoe for every single dance, because one dance will start on one side of stage and then we get off on the other side. So our shoes would have to travel to our next location, which would be impossible in the amount of time we have.”
DID YOU KNOW? Character shoes are a standard professional dance shoe that’s engineered to be more flexible and responsive to the feel of the floor.
Are they basically dressed-up character shoes?
“Yes, that’s exactly what they are. We also have two sets of tap shoes, for the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers and the 12 Days of Christmas, which are actually miked. They send them to a company to have a microphone put into the arch of the foot that hears all of our taps. It does make them a little bit heavier, though.”
What Rockettes costume best represents the holiday season to you?
“I think the 12 Days of Christmas [costume] is the best representation of the holidays. It's a really fun, cute costume. We kind of look like a candy cane wrapped [as] a Christmas present.”
DID YOU KNOW? The oldest costume style still worn is the wooden soldier outfit, which debuted in 1933.
Stephanie McDaniel is a political theorist-turned-novelist from South Carolina. On the rare occasion she’s not writing, she spends her time folk dancing, singing, and adding sea salt to Lake Michigan.