About the author:
Lisa Lewis' career as a dancer has taken her on national and European tours with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to the stage of Milan's La Scala Opera House in West Side Story and to the Grammy and Tony Awards. These days, she spends most of her year dancing in the ensemble of The Lion King at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre. But every fall since 2000, Lewis has joined the ranks of the world's most famous dancing troupe: the Rockettes, stars of the annual holiday extravaganza The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. There's a mystique about this line of 36 anonymous yet hugely talented women, and Broadway.com wanted to know what the Christmas season is like for this hard-working troupe—and what it means to be part of a kick line that has been delighting audiences for 75 years. Luckily, Broadway baby Lisa Lewis agreed to give us the scoop.
I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, so I had no idea what I was getting into when I became a Rockette—or how exciting the job would be. A friend had encouraged me to participate in Radio City's diversity outreach workshop at a time when I was just starting to dance again after dealing with a knee injury for two years. At the end of the workshop, the folks in Rockette Operations invited me to audition, and I joined the company in 2000. When I tell people I'm a Rockette, it's so much fun to see their mouths drop!
The Christmas Spectacular is a seasonal job that runs from September to December 30. The rest of the year, I'm part of the dance ensemble in the Broadway production of The Lion King. Every year I have to put in a request for a leave of absence to work at Radio City, and I've been fortunate that Disney has always said yes. Both jobs are close to my heart, though they're obviously very different. I went "home" to the Minskoff the other day, and even though it is one of the biggest theaters on Broadway at 1,650 seats, the stage looked tiny compared to Radio City! Even after eight years, I'm still amazed when I look out and see 6,000 people at a performance of the Christmas Spectacular.
This year, the Christmas Spectacular is especially magical as we celebrate its 75th anniversary. The Rockettes dance much more than we have in the past, and our two new numbers are my favorite part of the show. In "New York at Christmas," we ride onstage in a double-decker bus in front of a 40-feet-high by 90-feet-wide LED screen that takes the audience on a grand sightseeing tour. After 13 years here, I consider myself a New Yorker, and that number captures the very best of the city. Later, in "Let Christmas Shine," we come down a staircase like 36 dancing diamonds, wearing costumes covered with 3,000 Swarovski crystals. Silver confetti explodes on the stage, and the message of the number is all about hope and joy. It's really incredible.
Of course, many of the show's most popular elements are still there, including "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," which the Rockettes have performed since 1933. I'm an "end girl," the last one to fall when the soldiers go down, domino-style. It's not a bad spot to be in—I go down and pop right back up. The girls on the bottom have to stay stiff, and the tallest girls are in the middle. When you're watching the show, it may look like every Rockette is the same height, but the tallest is 5' 10 ½" and I'm 5' 5½". People always ask me if we wear different heel heights, but we don't. The illusion holds when the tallest women are in the middle and the shorter ones like me are on the ends.
Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge of my job is staying healthy and in shape. We have a training room at the theater for preventive physical therapy because the repetitive movements we do can be very taxing on our bodies. The training room is equipped with a 40-degree ice bath to bring down inflammation. When you're tired, sometimes you don't want to warm up as much as you should, and it's tempting not to eat well. That's when you tell yourself, "I have 17 shows this week—I must stay healthy." The good part? I don't need to go to the gym or to dance class during the Christmas Spectacular, and I can eat whenever I like.
My favorite moment of each day comes when the curtain goes up at Radio City and I hear the response from the audience. So many people tell me that the Christmas Spectacular is an important part of their family's holiday traditions. At this point, I'm a veteran Rockette, and I hope to make it to at least 10 years in the show—to become a "Dec-ette," as one of my friends calls it. We have the most amazing audiences, and the show itself has never been better. See you there!