The Radio City Christmas Spectacular has been one of the most beloved traditions of the holiday season for nearly a century—and at the center of it all are the Radio City Rockettes. Members of the New York City dance company are known for their red lips and high kicks, but behind the scenes, they have one of the most demanding jobs in show business.
Personally, I’ve been enamored by the Rockettes for as long as I can remember—my mom took me to see them for the first time on my 13th birthday, and it was just as magical as I expected. Since then, I’ve been endlessly curious: Who are these fabulously talented women? How did they earn their spots? What’s life really like as a Rockette?
Last September, I had the chance to get some of these questions answered. I was invited to Radio City Music Hall to learn a few classic Rockette numbers from the dancers, and even just a peek into their rehearsals proved that they work hard. The 80 women in the company perform in up to four 90-minute shows a day during the holidays, and each one includes about 300 kicks (that’s 1,200 total per day).
That’s not including the rest of the work they do to be stage-ready. Being a Rockette requires some serious strength and stamina. After all, “Rockettes are athletes dripping in diamonds,” dancer Sarah Grooms told The Huffington Post. Here’s how they do it, according to Rockettes past and present.
1. Leading up to the Christmas Spectacular, they rehearse for six days a week, six hours a day.
While you might think the Rockettes’ season is confined to November and December, preparations for the show start months ahead of time. First, all of them go through a grueling two-day audition process during the spring to choose the year’s cast—but the effort is well worth it, Rockette Christina Cichra told CBS News. “Many of us have been dreaming about this since childhood,” says Cichra. “That serves as motivation when your body wants to give up.”
For the women who make the cast, the intense work begins about 6 weeks before the show’s opening weekend. The dancers rehearse six (or more) hours a day, six days a week to train for the show’s demands. Because even though they make it look effortless up there, the performances themselves are incredibly challenging: According to CBS News, you’d have to do five or six barre classes in a row wearing body weights to account for their heavy costumes.
2. During the off-season, they do cross-training to stay strong—some even teach classes.
When they’re not rehearsing precise choreography, the Rockettes do different types of workouts to keep them strong and in shape. “We kind of do our own different things, barre classes, spin classes, go to the gym, cardio—you name it, we do it,” one Rockette told PEOPLE Now.
Each Rockette has her own fitness routine. “I like to make sure I have a variety of different workout classes in my weekly workout routine,” dancer Megan L. said in a Rockettes blog post. “I take at least one dance class daily and then do a mix of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and SLT (a total-body workout that ties together cardio, strength training, and Pilates) workouts.”
Other favorites: yoga, Pilates, running, boxing, and, yes, other types of dancing. “Dance cardio classes are my favorite,” dancer Danelle Morgan said in the blog post. “They help me maintain and strengthen my technique, challenge myself with varying styles, and enjoy good music.”
Some of the women actually teach classes when they’re not Rockette-ing. Several work at dance cardio hotspot Body By Simone in New York City, while others are yoga instructors or teach other group fitness classes.
3. A Rockette’s day often starts with a hearty breakfast .
Many Rockettes have stressed how important a hearty breakfast is to them—combinations of protein, carbs, and fat help them power through long days of rehearsals or shows.
Of course, every dancer’s go-to is different. Grooms told the Huffington Post that she starts her day with a toasted everything bagel with pepper jack cheese and avocado, plus an iced coffee from Starbucks.
Detailing a day in her life, Rockette Sophie Rose Holloway told Glamour, “Today, I wanted an extra boost of protein and nutrients so I made a vegetable omelet packed with eggs, spinach, tomato, avocado, and a little bit of Parmesan cheese. I also always pack a banana in my bag as a snack.”
Rockette Brittany Paige Snyder also told Glamour she might go for a smoothie with flaxseeds, chia seeds, frozen blueberries, peanut butter, and milk.
4. In fact, eating enough all day long is key to keeping up their strength and stamina.
To keep up their energy, eating enough throughout the day is crucial. “We eat more than the average person,” Cichra told CBS News. “Throughout the day I eat protein and carbs, and treats are important.” In fact, some dancers have said it can actually be challenging to get in enough calories for the energy they need in a day (which, after all, is what calories do).
Between shows, healthy fast-casual restaurant The Little Beet is popular among the women, or they’ll eat at the theater. For Snyder, lunch might be “a cheese stick, some trail mix, a few hard-boiled eggs, and some peanut-butter-filled pretzels,” she told Glamour. Several dancers also rely on peanut butter sandwiches on whole-grain bread for a combination of healthy fat and carbs.
5. They also may power nap between shows.
“When the curtain goes down, we have 90 minutes until the next show. I go upstairs to a catered lunch, and usually have a turkey sandwich to get my carbs in. Then I take a 20-minute nap,” Morgan told The New York Times.
She’s not the only Rockette known to squeeze in power naps between shows and meals. Yes, many of the women do try to get eight hours of sleep every night to recharge and aid in muscle recovery, but sometimes, a quick snooze in the day is necessary. “If we can’t get in a full night’s rest, we fit a nap in between performances,” Rockette Natalie Reid told Rachel Ray Every Day.
6. The dancers do their own dynamic warm-ups before curtain call.
Before show time, a dynamic warm-up is important—it helps increase range of motion, prevent injury, and ease the dancers’ muscles into the work they’re about to do.
“I do lots of abdominal pulses to get my center core turned on, and dynamic stretches to get the blood flow moving and prepare my body for the dancing. I also do lots of hamstring and calf stretches for all those eye-high kicks,” Holloway told Glamour.
Snyder adds, “I do a full body warm-up—stretching, jumping jacks, core strengthening, and push-ups, paying extra attention to my legs (especially my hamstrings and hip flexors) because of all of those eye-high kicks we perform during the show.”
7. Post-show recovery includes stretching and a 10-minute ice bath.
After the curtains close, it’s time for a cool-down. After stretching, the Rockettes have a training room where many of them shiver through 10-minute ice baths. While not all experts agree on how effective ice baths are, the idea is that they reduce inflammation, leading to less muscle soreness and fatigue.
Ultimately, it depends on the person. “It’s intense for 10 minutes, but afterward you feel so good,” Cichra told CBS News. “Once the show’s over, it’s important to take some time to recover.”
This also might mean sipping a shake or glass of chocolate milk in the ice bath, she says. Not only is chocolate milk a great recovery drink thanks to its combo of protein and carbs, but we’re willing to bet it tastes pretty amazing after a 90-minute show, too.