There is no “most wonderful time of the year” without the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. For 86 years, the iconic musical production has ushered New York City into the holiday season with its bright lights, massive production and holiday cheer.
And there’s no Radio City Christmas Spectacular without the Rockettes.
Once described to HuffPost as “athletes dripping in diamonds,” the women who high-kick us into the holiday spirit each year undergo an intense rehearsal schedule, perform up to four shows in a day, and change costumes between almost every number in the show with sometimes as little as 78 seconds to do it. And on top of doing their intense choreography, they do their own hair and makeup, too.
HuffPost paid a visit to the landmark New York City theater to get the lowdown on what these athletes wear to work ― the iconic costumes, the offstage looks, the rehearsal gear and, of course, the makeup tips and tricks they have learned as a Rockette, whether in their first season or sixth.
Maile Makaafi has been a Rockette for two seasons, long enough to have a routine ― and her priorities ― down pat.
“We wear 2.5-to-3-inch heels basically the entire show, so my first priority offstage is flats, any kind of sneaker, something with arch support. These are my Nike Air Force Ones with even swooshes on the laces. Big fan of Nike, apparently.”
The rest of her look ― Topshop skinny black jeans, a Madewell turtleneck and a puffer jacket ― are all part of her typical wardrobe. “This is definitely what I usually roll up to the theater wearing,” she said. “Now that I’m in the morning cast it’s really nice to have my evenings available to meet up with friends. I’ll put the black jeans back on and always a sneaker.”
Makaafi uses part of her commute as a warmup, sometimes getting off the subway early to walk the rest of the way, and keeps all her hair and makeup products in the dressing room. Waiting to put her look together, she said, helps her “get in the game and mentally prepare for doing two to four shows in one day.”
As for her hair? “I like to start with fresh curls because the texture really helps me keep it all in there, I have a lot of hair going on here. I love the Bumble and Bumble curl cream and the hairdresser’s oil helps to keep it moisturized and conditioned because, again, we’re using so much hairspray, lots of pins. We wear hats and wigs for a lot of the numbers so it’s easy to dry out.”
There is a science involved with those hats and wigs. Makaafi explained that since the hats are customized to the specific size of a dancer’s hair, none of them would fit if she, say, got a haircut midway through the seasons. There are even some hat tricks she keeps in mind when they do fit.
“Some of the hats, like the Wooden Soldier hat for instance, falls over your face and you can only see right in front of you, and it’s sitting right on top of your eyebrows,” she said. “I love Benefit brow products; I use the gel to keep them tame. Because right afterward we have our infamous 78-second change, the quickest change I will ever do in my entire life, so there’s not a lot of time to brush them back into place.”
Emily King doesn’t know exactly how many cans of hairspray she goes through in a season ― she just knows it’s a lot. “We’ve been in shows for not very long at all [already this year] and I’ve already gone through one and a half cans,” she told HuffPost. King uses Suave and “endless bobby pins” to get her hair in the signature Rockettes French twist, and spends her post-show evenings scrubbing with Neutrogena makeup wipes and brushing her hair out ― but not washing it.
“I definitely don’t wash it every night,” she said, laughing. “I take it out and brush it out every night, but it’s kind of the strange secret that when your hair is dirtier, a twist goes up so much easier.”
King’s favorite costume is the one in which she’s photographed, a Swarovski-crystal-covered dress made to look like vintage Christmas lights. The Rockettes all wear custom LaDuca shoes that for some numbers are painted to match their skin tone, and Capezio tights that are shade-matched, too.
The costumes are uniform, but each Rockette has individual favorites when it comes to hair and makeup. “The rule of thumb for a Rockette is a lip, a liner and a lash,” King said. “I’m currently wearing a Sephora liquid red, an Ardell lash and a Revlon liquid eyeliner, but we frequently wear MAC Ruby Woo or Russian Red, too.”
For Maddie Rodrigue, there’s nothing quite like the “New York at Christmas” portion of the show, and the costume that goes with it. “It’s the number where I feel the most connected to the legacy as a Rockette, because it’s the epitome of what it is to experience and celebrate Christmas in New York City,” she said. “We perform our iconic circle kicks, the entire ensemble is involved in the number, so it’s a full team effort and it’s really special.”
Those kicks ― named “eye high” for obvious reasons ― are a key part of any Rockette performance, and they perform them in several different heel heights, depending on the number and costume. Is one particular height easier than the others?
“Most of the time we are performing our eye high kicks in a heeled shoe,” She said. “Our shoes are all custom and the ones I’m wearing are 2.5 inches. For ‘Rag Dolls’ [another number], we’re in a flat tap shoe and that can get a little slippery sometimes. We train and practice so much and so well, though, that I think truthfully all 80 of us could do an eye high kick in just about anything.”
There are two sets of choreography for this number, determined by color of the Rockette’s coat ― either red or green. “There’s a moment when you’re in the kick line and you’re looking to your left and right at all of us in the same costume, and then you look out at the 6,000 seats and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a Rockette.’ It’s amazing.”
The “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” number ― and its costume ― have been part of the show since its inception in 1933. That means for 86 years, Rockettes have maneuvered the stage in pants designed to make it nearly impossible to bend their legs. They’re supposed to be wooden, after all. Oh, and did we mention they can’t really see during the number? MacKenzie Howse, a first-time Rockette, broke down the look.
“We have to make sure the hat, which with the flume sits 2.5 feet above my head, is pulled down completely so it’s covering my eyes,” she said. “When you’re onstage, you can’t really see anything. You’re really trusting the people around you to make sure we’re in a straight line, hoping you’re not going to fall or anything.”
Those aforementioned pants are so stiff, they stand up on their own even when they’re not being worn, “which is insane, amazing,” Howse said. The slightest bend, she explained, will throw off that perfectly straight line.
Of all the changes during the show, the one that comes after “Wooden Soldiers” is the fastest. The dancers have just 78 seconds to get out of this cumbersome look and into the “Christmas in New York” outfit, pictured on Rodrigue above. The number ends with the Rockettes all falling backward onto one another, and they use that time wisely.
“We have velcro in the back, and when we’re sitting on the stage after we complete the fall and the lights go out we actually undo the person in front of us,” she said. “We get the velcro and zipper so when we go backstage you can just start taking it off, which really helps.” Backstage, the Rockettes are assisted by dressers, who work with them to get stage ready as quickly as possible.
“The first time was terrifying, I was so worried about being late,” Howse said. “But I managed to make it onstage. The best thing is to stay calm.”
After six seasons of dancing ― and sweating ― onstage, Alicia Lundgren knows a thing or two about the best sweat-proof products. “I have tested so many red lip stains over the years, and the MAC one stays on and dries down really well,” she said. “I wear Fenty foundation in shade 480 and I actually find that one holds up to our sweating. It stays on and I don’t have to reapply between shows.” She also uses Dove invisible dry spray deodorant, she said, because it doesn’t show up on her clothes.
She’s also mastered the signature french twist, which she says only takes her about five minutes. “I use Mixed Chicks edge control gel and tie it down with a scarf,” she explained. “When it’s time to do the show I take off the scarf and go.”
Once the final curtain goes down, it’s heels off and flats on. “After the show we run upstairs, hang up our costumes ourselves, take a rest, hydrate,” she said. “A lot of us will take off our makeup. I use the Neutrogena makeup wipes, they do pretty solid work. I’m truly a sneaker woman all the time. I do a Nike or an Adidas. There are these fleece sweatpants from Aritizia that are really comfy and sort of chic-looking so I don’t look too sloppy. I’ll wear that and a sweatshirt if I’m heading home. If not it will be jeans and a sweater.”
Shelby Finnie is a brave soul: She has been transitioning to natural deodorant during her third season as a Rockette. “It’s not bad. It’s mostly just the antiperspirants that are bad for you, and you know we’re sweating anyways, so I haven’t really noticed much of a difference.”
We’re sweating just thinking about the costume changes, the hair and makeup, and the velvet suit Finnie wore for photographs. It’s the first look of the show and the only costume the Rockettes put on in their dressing room. But Finnie called it the most comfortable.
“It’s basically a velvet unitard, and it’s nice to start in something a little warmer because then you’re kind of warmed up for the show,” she said.
In the first number, the Rockettes are each in charge of lighting up their own antlers at precisely the same time as part of the choreography. But Finnie isn’t sweating through her natural deodorant under pressure. “It’s all these little details that make the show spectacular,” she said. “We’re precision dancers, it’s just what we do.”
To get their choreography in check, Rockettes undergo a grueling rehearsal period, and for second-season dancer McKenzie McGrath, there are a few important factors that go into a rehearsal outfit.
“I wear a lot of Lululemon, but these are Lilybod leggings,” she said. “I like them because I feel like they fit better, they are more form-fitting and stay up because obviously we’re moving all the time, we can’t be pulling leggings up all day. The fabric is sweat-resistant and light which is everything we need in rehearsals ― no cotton, really.”
A typical rehearsal outfit consists of either a leotard and tights or leggings and a tank top, whatever the dancer prefers. “It has to be form-fitting for us to see our lines in the mirror and what we’re doing,” she said.
Once the season starts and the rehearsals are over, it’s rare to see a Rockette in an outfit like this since they don’t rehearse during the season, but it plays an integral part in the preparation. For McGrath, like her fellow dancers, comfort is always key.
“Offstage, I’m very casual, either a sweater and jeans, or if I’m really tired, leggings and a sweatshirt. We rehearse six hours a day for six weeks.”