Where: The Rockettes Master Class at the Nashville Ballet
When: November 11th 12:14 p.m.
"There is nothing soft about this dance," says Annie Gibbons-Syke. "Hit it hard. Shine!"
Gibbons-Syke is instructing dozens of girls in a practice room at the Nashville Ballet. She and Laura Danelski are part of iconic dance troupe the Rockettes, performing in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Grand Ole Opry House until Dec. 24, and they're leading an intense seven-hour master class with a group of aspiring dancers.
The majority of the women in the room are in high school and college. A few are old enough to have auditioned for Fame, but most of these girls weren't even born when Flashdance came out. Most are in the requisite black leotards and leggings; some wear heels, and others wear ballet slippers.
One collegiate girl is wearing an ensemble that looks like something you'd see in the American Apparel display window, all bright neon leggings and attitude. So that's who can wear those leggings, I muse. Hipsters, step aside.
Some of these women were clearly born to dance, and some are just trying their best. The ones in the former group make it look effortless: They smile as they glide through each sequence, and even if they're a bit off, each movement is graceful. The ones in the latter group look stressed out. They grit their teeth and grimace when they mess up, and it's obvious that no matter how much they practice, they will always have to work harder than the girl next to them.
It's kind of like watching a young band play a show on any given night in Nashville. A lot of them are really good, but no matter how hard they work, not all are destined for greatness. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the key to success involves 10,000 hours of practicing a specific task, but raw, natural talent — and that indefinable "it factor" — come into play as well.
"Break on 1, 2, 3. Arm up!" Gibbons-Syke instructs. The class freezes. Gibbons-Syke and Danelski look around the room, noting the differences in the placement of each girl's arm. "This arm needs to match 18 ladies," Gibbons-Syke says, demonstrating with her own arm. The girls look around, noting how off they are from their neighbors.
This may sound like elementary stuff. But the Rockettes' signature choreography is as precise as geometry. Even if you haven't seen the show, you can picture a long, perfect line of women kicking their long, perfect legs in flawless sync. No less than the 300 kicks they execute per show, the rest of the dance movements — including the famous wooden soldiers routine, which the students will learn today — are an exact science.
"They're very detailed and specific in the teaching. Everything down to our fingertips, where our eyes are looking, or where our cheekbone is will be honed," Danelski says of the intense rehearsals that lead up to the show season each year. "Everyone in the room will hold a position, and the director will come down the line and make small corrections. If your arm is up, maybe you need to move it a centimeter to the right."
Rockettes have to re-audition every year, and they must be at least 18 years old and proficient in tap, jazz and ballet. And while you can never be too rich or too thin, you can be too tall or too short to be a Rockette. Eligible dancers must be between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-10.
Well, at least I'm eligible, I think smugly. (I'm 5-8.) I suddenly regret quitting dance classes as a kid. I immediately feel bad for the impossibly tall, thin, gorgeous blonde in the center of the room, who is a few inches too tall to make the cut. Then I realize that she's an impossibly tall, thin, gorgeous blonde, so she'll probably make it through life just fine.
When I get some one-on-one time with Danelski, who has been dancing with the Rockettes for 11 years, she tells me the Rockettes perform four to five shows a day during their season, which means they do anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 kicks every day. You may think that kicking doesn't sound that difficult, but I challenge you to stop whatever you are doing, stand up, and kick for as long as you can. If you make it past 100 kicks without feeling like you're going into acute myocardial infarction, I will buy you a beer.
I speak from experience, because Danelski led me through some simple kicks, and despite the fact that I hit yoga several times a week and can hold a tree pose with the best of them, I nearly toppled over multiple times. I blamed the bright pink boots I wore for the occasion — I thought they looked dancer-ish — but the real culprit was the uncoordinated person in the boots.
So, back to these 1,000-plus kicks: They're so physically demanding that many of the dancers do ice baths every day, just like marathon runners. But all that torture does have an upside.
"We don't have to diet during the Christmas season at all," Danelski says, smiling. "We have to keep our strength up, so we make sure we get enough protein and carbohydrates, and we get to throw in a few Christmas cookies with all of those kicks."
As the students file out for their lunch break, I talk to 15-year-old Maggy Lynn Landers, one of those natural talents who stood out from the crowd. She's been dancing since she was 3 years old, and her mom owns a dance studio in Columbia, Tenn. She sees the Rockettes as many times as she can each year at Opryland, and this year she's traveling to New York to see them at Radio City Music Hall.
"I love the Rockettes," Landers gushes. "They're beautiful onstage — I love the costumes, I love the way they dance, everything. I've always wanted to be a Rockette."
When I ask if she'll audition when she's eligible in three years, she nods and says that she thinks she will. Landers is among the few present who might actually have a shot — the very few, it must be said.
But a Rocky-style chance at the Radio City spotlight is not why most of the women are here. Looking around the room, it's obvious that — beyond getting to study with professionals who embody poise, precision and athletic grace in the popular imagination — these women are here because they love it. And for the duration of their afternoon with the Rockettes, regardless of whether they are destined for greatness, they are dancers.
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