Written By: Liz Ronk
Holiday seasons are about the return of traditions, both within families and across American culture.
One long-running American tradition is the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which was sidelined like so many other stage shows in 2020 but kicks off once again in New York City in 2021. Whether Radio City Hall is across the street (as it was from the old LIFE magazine offices) or a couple thousand miles away, the return of those high kicks is as sure a sign of that the holiday season is upon as as trees in the living room and window displays in department stores.
LIFE took readers deep inside the world of the Rockettes in its Dec. 11, 1964 cover story. Titled “The World’s Most Famous Kick,” the story was rich in behind-the-scenes detail and showed how the dancers prepped for four shows a day, seven days a week, on one of the most famous stages in the world.
The piece, with photos by Art Rickerby. focused on five young dancers who, out of the many hopefuls who had auditioned that year, were talented and driven enough to earn a spot on stage:
Little girls who grow up to be Rockettes are born and raised in places like Milford, Mass., and Niles, Ohio, and Erie, Pa., and they get thrust into dancing classes by their mamas when they are scarcely more than toddlers. As they grow older they hear about the great dance spectacle at the Radio City Music Hall and start to wonder if. . . .
The more enterprising ones write letters asking how one goes about becoming a Rockette. They get polite form replies listing the requirements: they must be high school graduates, between 5-feet 5-inches and 5-feet 8-inches tall, have good figures and be excellent performers in tap, ballet, modern jazz dance and high kicks.
LIFE’s story also shined a spotlight on Russell Markert, a true impresario who directed the Rockettes from the opening of Radio City 1932 to his retirement in 1971:
“Lean back [Markert said in rehearsal] as if you were saying, ‘Hallelujah!’ Got it? You, over there, put some blood in those arms. They look like weak fish. And you, the blonde, don’t be afraid to stick out your butt and never mind twisting the backside it throws you off. Don’t you hear the beat? Here I’ll hum it for you.”
Markert is a brisk and stern taskmaster, first demonstrating a new routine to his girls, then letting them try it, then throwing up his arms in dismay and flinging himself into the group to dance with them. [He] is a kindly man who clucks over his girls, and calls them “my dancing daughters” … [If] anybody falters during a performance, even so slightly that the audience would never notice, he sinks into private pits of black despair.”
Of the first-year Rockettes who were featured in the issue—young women who hailed from small towns in Maine, Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania—LIFE provided a bracing glimpse into the reality of their lives:
Each more frightened than the other, they decided to join forces in a city that turned to be even more perilous than they had imagined. They paid $300 a month for a shabby two-room apartment in a run-down hotel and nobody told them they were being overcharged. They were snapped at by waitresses and cabbies and pushed and shoved about in the subway. But four times a day they changed into spangles and feathers and make-up and danced before 6,200 patrons who had paid to see them.
More than a half-century after LIFE’s story ran, show goes on. The dancers take the stage at Radio City Music Hall, and the patrons get what they came to see. The performance is a reassuring sign that, come holiday season, tradition is alive and kicking.