Behind the scenes at Radio City Music Hall, the Rockettes are weaving their way to the stage right or stage left quick-change booths in between scenes in a well-choreographed number that you’ll never see onstage.
“It’s truly a show back here,” says Rockette Samantha Jo Harvey, a nine-year veteran of the dance team.
In the stage right quick-change booth one Wednesday morning, Harvey and her dance teammate Joanna Richardson show us what it’s like to make it from stage to costume change room and back again in between numbers.
In a small dressing room backstage, set up like a walk-in closet, wooden soldier hats line the walls and costumes sit waiting for the dancers. Blue and yellow tape with dancers’ names spelled out help the women quickly find their area, each with dresses, headpieces and shoes at the ready.
“Backstage, the choreography is just as important as what’s going on onstage and it’s also kind of a tradition,” says Richardson, who’s been a Rockette for 13 years. “We have a former Rockette that is one of our dressers backstage.”
With costumes as elaborate as the Rockettes’, it can take as many as two dressers helping a dancer slip out of one dress and into another.
Below, Harvey and Richardson talk us through the intricate costumes found in the quick-change booth.
There’s a new dress in the mix this holiday season and it’s heavy on the bling. The beige “Christmas Lights” finale dress, designed by “Project Runway” season 7 runner up Emilio Sosa, is embroidered with a sequin pattern that’s supposed to resemble classic-colored holiday lights, Richardson says. Each dancer’s dress has exactly 3,069 hand-glued Swarovski crystals. If that wasn’t enough — it comes with matching shoes decked out with 286 crystals each and a headpiece that has an additional 1,296.
With that many gems, plus crystal earrings, something is bound to go awry.
“Because we are doing live theater, sometimes, things happen that we don’t always plan for,” says Harvey.
One of Richardson’s favorite mishap moments: “Our costumes are adorned with so many crystals and rhinestones and one thing I find tricky is sometimes the rhinestones will fall off and you get a diamond on the bottom of your shoe. It becomes like an ice skating rink out there. It’s so slippery and sometimes you’ll try to shake it off or step a little bit harder to get it to fall off but that’s always a funny moment when we get off stage and we’re like, ‘Oh, a danger diamond was on my shoe while dancing!”
80 electric reindeer packs
Come on, the Rockettes are going for a sleigh ride and they’re bringing tiny electric packs in their jackets to keep the magic alive. Each dancer has a small switch inside their costume that they must turn on at the correct time to illuminate their antler headpieces. Lights running along their antlers are hand-checked before every performance.
In total, 560 costumes for the dance team fill two dressing spaces backstage — and that’s not counting young Clara and other extras like those who recreate the Nativity scene. Each Rockette has seven costumes for the “Christmas Lights,” “Sleigh Ride,” “12 Days of Christmas,” “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” “New York at Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Rag Dolls” musical numbers. All of these costumes are custom-made to fit each Rockette perfectly. Some numbers, like “12 Days of Christmas,” include a mesh that’s dyed to match each dancer’s skin tone.
“Although we are all one and we’re precise and look like one united team, we’re all still individuals,” Harvey says. “So, I love that we get to celebrate our individuality as well as our strength in numbers.”
30,000 red cheeks
The “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” number — the one where the Rockettes fall one by one in a massive don’t-try-this-at-home trust fall — has a costume that’s remained almost exactly the same since 1933, the first show. The ladies are dressed up like soldiers in pants that stick up on their own and hats with 2.5 foot feather plumes.
Completing the costume is a pair of red cloth circles that stick to the dancers’ faces by use of double-stick tape or Vaseline. The used red cheeks — also used in the “Rag Dolls” number — total nearly 30,000 by the end of the season.
If it takes you approximately 120 minutes to get ready before a night out, you might not make it as a Rockette. The quickest costume change in the “Christmas Spectacular” leaves the ladies with 78 seconds to change from the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” costumes to the “New York at Christmas” dresses.
They slip out of pants, a jacket, gloves, a hat, cheeks, socks and shoes and into a red or green dress, jacket, gloves, earrings, fur hat and silver shoes. While some costume changes take place back in the quick-change room, faster swaps go on right on the side of the stage, Richardson says.
You know that part of the Show when it seems like every single mall Santa in the world has ended up on the Radio City stage? Those are all Rockettes in Santa suits. No fat suit is required, though. The dancers wear a 10-pound suit that includes an inner circular tube to give off that jolly feel. On top of the heavy costume, they dance holding bells that Richardson and Harvey say can feel like weights, at times.
“It feels like Santa Jazzercise on stage,” says Richardson.
“I mean imagine working out at the gym, with your 10-pound weight vest, ringing bells, because we ring bells too, so I like to tell people, 10-pound weight vest, 3-pound bells and we are in-shape Santas!” Harvey adds.
160 tiny mics
During each tap number, the Rockettes dance with shoes that have tiny microphones hidden inside the heels to magnify the sound of their iconic rhythm.
The “12 Days of Christmas” tap dance shoes are all hand-painted to match each Rockettes’ skin tone and include the small mic packs. Given the regular wear and tear, mics are changed after each performance.
IF YOU GO: The "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" is playing at Radio City Music Hall through Jan. 1. Tickets available at rockettes.com.