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After Rockettes - Rocky Bottom or High Tor?

ART TIMES April, 2005

 THE YEAR I was born marked two great events in my native New York City — the Empire State Building and the Rockettes launched at Radio City Music Hall.  I was unaware of either

It's not their past I want to dwell upon, but rather the future of former Rockettes.

What happens when a leggy lady leaves the line?  Does she hit rock bottom or stay on a Rocky Tor.

To understand, one must know what it is like to be a Rockette, and how to be one.

Helen Butleroff, who was a Rockette three times (summer of 1974, fall 1976 and finally the Christmas Show in 1978) remarked, "To qualify for an audition you had to be between 5'5" and 5'9".

"At the cattle call we had to do three different routines: tap, ballet and jazz.   If you passed that, a variety of kicks; next we were given a tap combination and a jazz combination. If you passed all that and had the right build, you got called if you got the job.

"When I was there we danced all shows 21 days in a row, then had a week off.

The women weigh in at rehearsals, much like boxers, and got notes if they gain weight or "if your smile was too broad, if you weren't part of the absolute precision.  Three notes and you could be fired."

Helen Caronna, who was a Rockette before her namesake daughter Helen Butleroff was born, remarked, "Lots of Broadway dancers become Rockettes, marry and stay. It's a steady job.  I remember all the husbands waiting after the show."  Interesting divergence from stage door Johnny's!

She came and went - staying six weeks the first time and three months the second, each time leaving for a Broadway show.

Setsuko Maruhashi, the first Asian American Rockette, who stayed 14 years explained,  "That's not long.  Many stayed longer.  When I started, we did all the shows. In December, four every day during the week, then five a day Friday through Sunday. We started at 9AM and would leave the theatre 9:30 or 10:00 PM. We took naps between shows, then ate together. We got very close to each other.

"I lost that sense of family when they divided the days."

Candice Michaels, a current Rockette, recalled, "I was doing a musical in DC.  A former Rockette mentioned the Christmas show.  The New York audition was my day off. I bussed to the city and auditioned.  I did the Christmas show two months later.

"I'm currently doing the Christmas Spectacular in Detroit for my sixth consecutive year.  I've performed with Rockettes in Nashville, Phoenix, Cincinnati and Branson as well as Detroit."

"While you have to be eighteen to be a Rockette, there's no cutoff age.  Plenty of girls well into their 30's kick with the best of them."

Christina Zitek recalls breaking that age rule. "At 16, I went from Ohio to Radio City the spring of my junior year in high school, to audition. When I got the summer job, I needed working papers because I was under 18.  I went to some office with my dad and filled out papers. I worked summers '66 to '68. When I graduated, I moved to New York.  In '71 I did the holiday Christmas season. Many were there before I came, more than fifty percent had families."

Obviously, there are two types of Rockettes: those who make it a lifestyle, and those who come and go. So what happens to those who go?  Do they miss the Rockettes?

According to Setsuko, "Some do Christmas shows in other cities. One went on to create Christmas shows outside NY, some go with dance companies or become dance teachers."

Among her many good memories of the Rockettes,  "In 1988 we did the Super Bowl half-time show.  When we rehearsed on the football field, people took pictures with us.  Some Asians asked for my autograph.

"After I resigned, I was back on stage again for the Rockettes 76th anniversary. When we took a bow it was an unforgettable moment.  It felt as if I never left Radio City."

The Rockettes - as the Rockets and Roxyettes - predate their Radio City stint.  They began in St. Louis in 1925. Rockettes come from all over the country.  "We even have one from London this year," Candice Michaels noted.  "They go home when they are not doing the shows."

Christina Zitek loved being a Rockette while friends were working as life guards or in burger joints: "I couldn't believe I was paid to do what I loved four times a day every day.

"I had a terrible voice, so musicals were out.  The consistency of the Radio City Music Hall was fabulous and comfortable.  Still, I moved on.

"I thought about going back, but never did.  Too busy doing other things, including marriage."

She had thought it would be all uphill after Rockettes, but found it was pretty much status quo, doing lots of dance work elsewhere.

"I saw the Rockettes recently in Denver and think the quality of the dance is better than before.  It's still hoofing, but not old fashioned hoofing.  I don't so much miss the Rockettes as I just plain miss dancing."

Kansas City native Candice Michaels, who has the best of both worlds - doing the Rockettes Christmas shows and appearing in musicals the rest of the year, says, "My main interest was musical theatre.  It's fun to be a character so unlike yourself.

"The Rockettes became real to me when I did 'A Chorus Line'; there's a monologue about wanting to be a Rockette. Being a Rockette is a prestigious title Dancing in musical shows has always been wonderful.  I'm a Pilates instructor in my off time now."

Helen Butleroff whose first job was as a June Taylor Dancer, had 5 career ambitions as a child.  With Mom a Rockette and her Balanchine dancer dad a  Christmas pageant wise man, she wanted to be a Rockette.  Next ambition - teaching, like her Mom - and she has taught at Stony Brook theatre-dance.  Next, to tour with a show. "I did a lot of that," followed by "to choreograph and direct," which she is doing now with over 50 shows to her credit.  She also wanted to dance on Broadway, off-Broadway and on tour.  She's been there, done all that, and never felt anything was downhill.

"Most important about being a Rockette is the ability and opportunity to dance!  I love dancing and dancing in front of a Radio City audience was wonderful.  But you have to be a mirror, one wink off and the illusion is ruined."

Her mother Helen says, "I'm proud to have been a Rockette.  There is nothing like the first time I stood at a 6AM rehearsal, looking out over the huge orchestra - never anything in life as thrilling as that. Besides, being a Rockette means something around the country."

This from a woman whose career began in childhood as a Tony Sarge marionette with the Texas Centennial for 1936.  Then on Broadway in DU BARRY WAS A LADY over a year, followed by BY JUPITER with Ray Bolger.  Along with Ray Bolger she joined the USO, traveling to different camps.  Upon returning to NY, she opened her own dance school.

"My forte was teaching.  In 36 years I've trained kids for Horn and Hardart Children's Hour as well as five Rockettes and five dancers in the ballet corps. Many of my students became teachers as well.

Setsuko says she likes to "give back," which she does as director of public relations for CHILDREN HELPING CHILDREN, operated entirely by volunteers from The Dance Studio of Park Slope where she teaches adult and teenage dance classes.

Helen Butleroff says many former Rockettes feel the same.  She herself did several projects, including - "The Food Guide Pyramid Musical" - presented for PS 1, Brooklyn, NY, which won New York State's Department of Achievement Award -2003, and "Fitness for the Future from Your Favorite Voices of the Past" a nutrition/entertainment show for senior citizens at Roosevelt Island Senior Center and Lenox Hill Senior Center- 2003.

None of these women felt they reached major heights or descended to great depths - they just went on dancing, one way or another, after leaving the Rockettes.

When Christina's daughter returned from New York recently, she presented her Mom with a souvenir mug from Radio City.  It reads:

"What it takes to be a Radio City Rockette Superior dancing ability.  Tap, modern, jazz and ballet.  Unlimited enthusiasm, endurance and energy.  Standard of excellence in personal appearance, attitude and sense of style."

These women certainly prove that's true.  Let's lift our mugs and kick up our heels to the Rockettes of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

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