Rockette Confessions

jazzed-up

I have lived a thousands lifetimes this month.

The holiday season & bustle
The bright lights of the season
The triggers of my past
Feeling time slipping through my fingers
The insanity of December and a schedule that says

Go
Go
Go

All wrapped up in a giant bow of intention. The intention to just be “ok” with where I am.

And isn’t that the biggest challenge we all face?

And in the bright lights of the city, I found myself asking the question,
What does Christmas mean to me today?

Christmas was defined by so many things in my past, including performing.

Beautiful costumes, full houses, and music filling the stage as I danced.  And for a few years, specifically, as I kicked.

This past week, I went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with three friends, two of whom had never seen the show before.  My one friend, visiting from Paris, wanted the thrill of seeing the show with a Rockette, and I was happy to oblige.

As the lights exploded all around us in the Music Hall, I felt the child-like glee of the season fill me, and came to the front of my seat, already dancing to the Orchestra swell.

The line looked strong, and as I watched them kick in unison, I found myself remembering all of it.

I remembered the thrill of performing the show.  I remembered the glamour, and I remembered all the hard work.

The lightening fast costume changes, the carb-loading in the morning, the ice baths at night, and the endless red lipstick and bobby pins.

And then I remembered all the disappointment, and heartbreak.

 

I am not your typical Rockette story.

I actually never saw myself as a Rockette. I saw myself as a dancer in the ensemble.  I was technically, a half inch too short.  But more than that, I just didn’t believe I was the kind of dancer to be one.

The production stage manager for the Myrtle Beach company of the Christmas Spectacular, was one of my professors at Penn State.  There used to be productions of the Spectacular in special cities, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina was one of them.

He had pulled me aside in college and talked to me about the show, and my plan was to audition to be a dancer once I graduated college.

But, things moved much faster than I planned.

A couple months after I graduated college, in November of 1998, I got a phone call from my professor, asking how soon I could fax a picture and resume. They had just fired one of the ensemble singers in the Christmas show and needed a replacement.

Opening Night was in a few days.

Being the late 90’s, I had to come into Manhattan from Queens to find a fax machine, and I remember doing this at midnight.

My picture and resume was sent to Linda Haberman, the head of the Rockettes, with my professor’s seal of approval.

And within 24 hours, I was on a plane.

I learned the entire show in two days, and went on.  It was a whirlwind, and also a real eye-opener for what I was capable of. The show was highly intricate, with colored lines and specific numbers on the stage I had to hit.

And I did, and in two days.

At the end of the season, I returned to the city, and when I told people I had just done the show, I always got the same response

Oh! Were you a Rockette?

And it happened so many times, I began to ask,

What was everyone else seeing I wasn’t?

So, the following year, I decided to actually audition for the Rockettes. Linda was there at the auditions and she was very pleased to see me, as I was the woman who had saved them in a crunch.

And I got it.

At 24, I traveled back down to Myrtle Beach and stepped on the stage as something I never imagined I could, a New York City Rockette.

It was incredible….and I was making the most money I had ever made, was challenged and fulfilled. I couldn’t wait to do it again!

But that wasn’t my journey.

I then went through several years of auditioning for the show, and being put on a waiting list.

I went from being the savior of the show in Linda’s eyes, to her saying to my face at an audition that my dancing was “affected”.

I was beginning to question my dancing, and my ability, all because I wasn’t being re-hired.

They even went so far as to ask if I could get on a plane within 24 hours to replace someone….and then never called me back.

A tide turned in 2005 when they hired me, and for the first time I turned them down. I had booked the 25th Anniversary tour of Evita.

Damn, did that feel good.

And then in 2006, they hired me again. So I went at the ripe age of 31 to join the line for the first time in six years.

The show had changed drastically since I did it in 1999. The schedule was far more intense with four show days, the choreography more challenging. I was being tested at my limits with stamina, and felt I was getting notes every single performance.

It was intense, but I got a positive review from my choreographer and thought…

One more year. I’ve made it now.

Radio City had other plans.

And I found myself on the waiting list again, and that was it. I did some PR for them, but my days of kicking on stage were over.

I had never worked so hard in my life to be turned down. I felt I had proven myself again and again, and it didn’t matter to them.

 

For many years, I distanced myself from Radio City. There was a bad taste in my mouth and a deep frustration. I didn’t feel valued.

I felt like just a number.

I worked in other theatres and when I would see women lined up to audition every year, I would turn the other way.

I felt rejected. I was back to the college student who just didn’t see herself as a Rockette.

 

Two weeks ago, I was invited to come speak at the Jazzed Up dance studio in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

Organized by Girls Powered Up founder, Nadine Juste, I came out to talk to the young women and girls about being a Rockette and also to share my story of becoming a dancer.

When I arrived, I watched the tail end of their hip hop class and was so taken by their spirit and raw energy, their attack on the rhythm, and ability to dance as a group.

That felt familiar.

But the real gift came in speaking with them, in answering their questions and meeting their wide eyes.

The real gift came in having an impact on what they thought was possible for themselves.

And finally, teaching them how to kick in a line just like a Rockette.

Their faces were lit up, and there it was….that reflection back at me, saying

You’re a Rockette

Their enthusiasm was a pure joy, especially seeing them so excited. And I saw THEM.

I saw their love of dance
Their attack and fire
Their legs kicking high

And most of all, the sheer joy of just expressing themselves through art.

The sheer joy we all feel when we create.

 

As I sat watching the Christmas Spectacular this past week, I took in the dancers, the sets and costumes…the backstage and all the memories of the show. And I felt a peace.

A peace for what was and for where I am now, reclaiming the woman who loved kicking in the lights and knowing I have an impact today.

Oh right…this is what Christmas means to me now.

This is the gift that is available to us all as we grow in our craft and careers, and as we bring all of who we are to our art.

Our history
Our trials
Our triumphs

And it’s being reflected back to us, so many times when we can’t see it ourselves, reminding us to kick high.

Reminding us of the Creative we truly are.

A Rockette Remembers

Rox collage

I’m giddy as a little girl, walking quickly, heels pounding the midtown cement as we near Ave of the Americas. It’s early on a Saturday, and my red hair bounces with newly fashioned curls. I’m bundled in my coat, but warm all over.

“Any idea where I am taking you?”



My niece, rushing along beside me shakes her teenage head, smiling as she tries to figure out the surprise awaiting her.

  And then we walk up to the giant facade, the Christmas tree rising from the marquee and the red lights proclaiming its pure New York history, Radio City Music Hall.

My niece jumps at me into a tight hug, and starts proclaiming ecstatic joy, reminding me she still has the Rockette Barbie doll I gave her last time I did the show with all the cast signatures on the box. 

My eyes widen with the memory, buying the doll with the eager intention to share the experience with her, as she wasn’t able to see me perform.  She was 11 then, and now stands before me a young woman.

We rush into the spacious and opulent lobby, moving into the glitter of the chandeliers and the deep rich red lining the floors and stairs.

As we sit in our seats, Santa calls from his sleigh, beckoning all to join with his benevolent laugh.  I take in the sudden enormity of the stage, the surging orchestra, sharing the show with my niece, and tears begin to fall steadily onto my cheeks, reflecting the bright holiday lights.  I wasn’t sure if I would ever make it here.

 

Last November, I was coming out of therapy and walking towards Madison Square Park. Decorations were going up all over the city for the holiday season, and I was feeling like a foreigner in a familiar land. As I walked past the Flatiron Building a giant sign stood in my path.

Season’s Greetings



Except it was upside down.

I stopped and took a picture of the sign, and identified with its basic visual. I felt completely wrong side up. I wasn’t feeling the joy of the season, nor excitement at candy canes, gifts, and wreaths.  From Halloween to New Years Day had always been my favorite time of year, filled with Christmas music on endless play from my headphones, and now there was an empty void.  I felt as though I was watching it all from an arm’s length, protecting myself from the traumatic memory of my Christmas before when I crawled on the floor and cried out to God.

I was legally divorced now, but the anniversary of my undoing was still so fresh in my bones and heart.

I wanted to survive my first single Christmas, but it felt all wrong from the 15 years prior.

My family community surrounded me with incredible support and love over the holiday, allowing me to cry, to grieve, and form new memories. We spent two weeks with my aunt and uncle in San Diego and the sunshine and new surroundings were a vital balm to my ache, allowing space for whatever arose.

In early January, I went to pick up my food order from the Astoria Arrow CSA through Lewis Waite Farm, a local organic provider. The coordinators were an adorable older couple, and I had enjoyed a few conversations with them on our monthly meetings while I picked up my eggs, meat, butter, and bread.

The husband invited me in.
  “I want to show you something”



He took me to a back room, still alight with the family’s holiday decorations, and on the side wall strung up was a Christmas tree.

Except it was upside down.



”That’s just how I feel this year. I wanted to show it to you. We’re going to be moving from this house soon and I’ve lived in it most of my life.”



This man knew nothing of my past, nothing of my story, and yet, I stood stock still taking in the synchronicity of our stories, his instinct to connect, and simply breathed, “I know exactly how you feel.”

As the holiday season approached this year, I felt an open space, and a curiosity towards the decorations and lights as they appeared on my block and in the stores.  I did most of my Christmas shopping early, but my apt remained untouched, still holding the pumpkins and gourds from October and November.

My niece’s visit put me into high gear, and I decided to take the plunge with buying tickets to the Christmas Spectacular.  I hadn’t seen the show in about 4-5 years, and I knew it would completely surprise her.  I bought a little live tree that came attached with a base for water, and brought it home amidst stiff cold December winds, blowing light snow into my hood.

I pressed play on Harry Connick Jr., and soon my little sanctuary was filled with joyous horns, drums, and holiday beats.  I took down my decoration containers and began to replace the pumpkins with angels and reindeer.

I recalled decorating our family tree as a child, opening the boxes of each ornament from its dusty home, having taken a year-long nap.  I used to assess the green branches, and place the hanging gold accordingly on the pine, stopping to inhale the fragrant smell, and eagerly awaiting the long strands of tinsel my mother would wrap as she stood on a step ladder.

As I unwrapped each of my ornaments from their tissue, I placed them on my counter and then turned to hang them in kind, seeking balance in these small branches.

Once my tree was done, I sat down to take it in, and an elf caught my eye, at the very top of the branches, his arms stretched out straight from his sides, with each palm facing up holding a gift.

And then I remembered.

Tears streamed down my face.  This is what I had forgotten, the offering of the season, the practice of giving, of stretching your arms jubilantly from your body, and placing within them your intentions and gratitude to those around you.  He stood, illuminated by the white bulb of my icicle strand, so tiny in the green.  He was absolutely perfect.

I looked on top of my microwave at my mini toy Charlie Brown Christmas tree with Linus’  baby blue blanket wrapped around the base, and decided to take away the green dish towel circled at the foot of my tree.  I opened my cabinet and withdrew the two blue holiday napkins patterned with silver thread that had lay dormant for two years.  Carefully tucking the edges around the water well, I wrapped my little tree.

 

The card shop is full of winter coats, scarves, and squeezed shoulders. Christmas is a week away, and I’m buying cards for my mother, my father, and my brother. I walk to the Christmas section and my eyes scan the glitter, reds, and deep greens shining from the individual plastic sleeves. The incoming afternoon sun glances off a flash of gold, and I reach for the card just above my eyes to see a Christmas tree beautifully embossed in linen white.

Except it’s upside down.

I stop for a moment, and then smile, as I realize the card was merely placed that way. I reach up and turn the rectangular greeting so the words can be read right side up, clearly, and in gold.

Season’s Greetings


Nikki Niki Rox