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December 12, 2012

Kick It

Terri Trespicio goes toe-to-toe with the Radio City Rockettes to see what it takes to survive the ranks of America's most famous dance troupe.


Photo Credit: NBC/Getty Images

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For some, the smell of a classroom or a newly waxed basketball court triggers a queasy adolescent memory. For me, it's the scent of a dance studio — the complex aroma of wood floors and distilled sweat, which hits me square in the face as I enter the rehearsal area backstage at Radio City Music Hall. Suddenly I'm 18 again, auditioning for my school's dance group and not making the cut, wishing I had a bendier body, pointier toes. Yet, given the current dance fitness craze — from ballet-barre conditioning to pole-dancing mania — I've decided to take on the mother of all of those workouts combined: a real-life Christmas Spectacular rehearsal with New York City's very own Rockettes.

I'm in a large studio surrounded by lithe, leggy women who look like they've never even once succumbed to a pint of Chunky Monkey. After sliding on a pair of standard-issue silver character shoes (very Dancing With the Stars!), I stand self-consciously beside them, peering into the wall of huge mirrors, singing Sesame Street's "Which one of these is not like the others?" to myself. The girls are sweet and smiling — yet they've eaten other dancers for breakfast, beating out the more than 500 who audition each season for their own spot in the cast of 80. It's more than a bit intimidating.

I observe the warm-up, which seems to vary according to individual dancer. Planks and crunches are popular — "they fire up your core," one dancer explains, which is key to staying balanced when one leg is straight up in the air. There are also neck stretches and shoulder rolls, hip and knee rotations, and the "bottoms up," where you hang forward with legs together, then bend and straighten your knees, raising your butt into the air in rhythmic fashion to prep your hamstrings. I try to mimic the motion but manage to look more ugly duckling than swan.

Once the blood is flowing, we plunge right into "Let Christmas Shine," the Rockettes' finale. An instructor calls out the moves: "Step, swivel, shoulder-shoulder-shoulder, step, piqué, turn ... " I feel the sweat blooming along my brow — and we've only just begun. Then we practice the same steps to music, which, by the way, is a total game changer — the moment I think I've got it, the soundtrack jacks us up to hyper-speed. Suddenly, we break into the trademark kick line. I take my place in the row as they breeze and I stumble through the waist-highs and eye-highs for which they're famous. It's been nearly 15 years since I've attempted such an outrageous thing, but I soldier on. The repetition and sheer force of these moves help explain the dancers' insane leg muscles, which somehow remain long and sleek, with nary a bulky thigh among them.

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