Life as a professional dancer hasn’t always been easy for Megan Crichton and Tiffany Whitaker, two Rockettes who will be journeying to North Charleston this week as part of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
Whitaker once got a gig dressed as a coffee cup for Dunkin’ Donuts, while Crichton spent many a weekend dancing at bat mitzvahs and weddings. They’ll be the first to tell you that “a gig’s a paycheck.” But luckily, they no longer have to take on the roles of dancing coffee cups and birthday party performers.
I sat down to lunch with the pair while they were here doing publicity for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I asked the hard questions that have been consuming each and every one of you. Here’s what hopefuls and haters need to know. (First secret: They have to interview in full costume.)
1. They eat, a lot. According to those calorie-counting devices you clip on, a Rockette burns 1,000 calories in one show, even without the chaotic costume changes. So they actually have to gorge themselves each night to replenish lost calories (also the effect of Secret No. 3). “During the season, the hardest thing is keeping weight on, because you’re doing four shows a day,” Whitaker says. “They do not like to take in your costume.” With personally tailored costumes made to “fit like a glove” and a no-hand-me-downs policy, losing weight is not an option. Backstage diet staple: Protein, lots of it.
2. They speak a different language. With careers that hinge on perfectly straight kick lines, these girls have otherworldly peripheral vision. Auditioning without understanding their terminology is dumb. Looking right is called “guiding,” and the “line police” stand in the wings observing which line was fast on which count of eight. “Bookends,” the shortest girls on either end of the line, run the show, and if one steps out of line, they all step out of line.
3. They’re sweaty. Contrary to popular belief, Santa’s girlfriends don’t show off their bare legs. In addition to their costumes, they generally wear two pairs of tights, a microphone, a hat, and sometimes a beard. Staying hydrated is critical. Backstage tip: cherry juice and coconut water is the best for swelling and hydration. Whitaker recommends adding some pineapple juice to cut the bitterness. I recommend vodka.
4. They wear very little makeup. With all the sweating, costume changing, and Santa-beard wearing, the girls stick to red lips and light eye makeup.
5. Yes, they do the kickline offstage. Crichton recently got married, and she and about seven fellow Rockettes showed off with a mini-kickline at her wedding. That’s completely normal behavior if you ask me.
6. They cry onstage. Whitaker gets teary-eyed as she explains, “You’re in a kick-line and you look down the line and you see the audience … I even cry sometimes just thinking about it!” Note: This may also have something to do with why they don’t wear makeup.
7. They take ice baths … together. These athletes have neck issues, hip issues, swollen ankles, and tight Achilles’ and metatarsals. Athletic trainers travel with them, and after every show they “dunk.” By that I mean they willingly submerge from the waist down in 42-degree water to keep their muscles from swelling. (You couldn’t pay me to do that.) To muster up the courage, “We share, or we take turns … it’s hard your first time and then you get used to it and go ‘5-6-7-8 dunk!'” Note: You know you’re a dancer when you start counting from five instead of one.
8. They strip in 70 seconds. With the help of “dressers” and a stopwatch, the costume changes are 100 percent choreographed. “If she’s taking her hat off, then I’m taking my shoes off. You have to be at different levels at different times,” says Crichton, alluding to the cramped changing space backstage. Earrings are strategically clipped onto hats, gloves wait in the wings inside out, and shoes are unbuckled to slip right on. Backstage secret: After the famous Parade of the Wooden Soldiers routine comes to an end with the dancers falling domino-like into each other, each girl unzips the girl in front of her while they’re still on stage. Tight-knit group, those girls.
9. Their job is seriously dangerous. At Radio City Music Hall, a series of four elevators brings the girls from the basement to the stage; it’s an 80-foot drop, and there are no nets to break a fall. (According to the Rockettes, no one has has.) On the arena tour, the finale is set on a staircase that’s on a track. The rail-less staircase moves forward with dancers onboard who have been forbidden to look down. The girls (there are 18 on tour and 36 on the Radio City stage) descend stairs that are not quite foot-length, smiling up at the balcony all the while. FYI: During World War II, the Secret Service guarded the theater 24/7; they were afraid the nation’s enemies would steal the designs for Radio City’s innovative elevators.
10. They still get nervous. After 12 years Whitaker still gets the butterflies before a show, noting that a rush hits her when the curtain comes up, especially when the Rockettes are on tour. She adds, “You’re in arenas for 20,000 people!”