The Rockettes Dancers on How They Wear Heels All Day Long

Think of Christmastime in New York City, and there are a few things that immediately come to mind, among them the decorated department stores, the giant tree in Rockefeller Center, and the Radio City Rockettes. Growing up a dancer, I found no other excitement compared to the day I finally got to see the Rockettes perform. Everything from their perfectly synchronized choreography to their abnormal uniformity to their sparkly costumes is something I haven’t stopped thinking about since my youthful elementary school days, so when I got the change to interview my low-key idols recently, I jumped at it.

The Rockettes have been around since 1925, and some of the costumes that they still wear today have been the same since 1933. In other words, this group of professional dancers is extremely iconic. With such a strong history backing the Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes, people travel to NYC from far and wide to see these women perform. From the months of November to January, these dancers dance up to 16 shows a week with a smile on their face and heels on their feet. That’s right—heels. Granted, the shoes the Rockettes wear are custom dance shoes, but at the end of the day, they are dancing on at least a 2 1/2-inch heel for three months straight. If you think I didn’t walk into my interview with tons of anti-foot pain questions and tips prepped, you’re wrong.

Besides handfuls of shoe questions, the two Rockettes I had the pleasure of chatting with, Alicia Lundgren and Alissa LaVergne, educated me on everything from how many Swarovski crystals are on their costumes to what their audition process is like and much more. Ahead, read my interview with the famous Radio City Rockettes and see exclusive images of their historic costumes.

How long have each of you been in the Rockettes?

Alissa LaVergne: This is my ninth Christmas.

Alicia Lundgren: This is my fifth.

What was the audition process like?

Alissa: Probably the longest two days of my life. It was pretty grueling. I mean, you have about 500 women who show up and it’s just cut after cut, and they teach a combo and they make a cut and they teach another combo and they make a cut, teach another combo make a cut, and then if you’re lucky to make it to the second day, you get like two hours of sleep I would say because you’re so nervous. Then you get up and you do the whole thing all over again. My first year I got it, I think they ended up with about 20 or so women left at the very end and they taped you, put you on video, measured you—

Alicia: —taught you a jazz combo, tap combo, kick combo. And then you wait.

Once you get in, do you get to be in it every year? Or do you have to re-audition?

Both: We have to re-audition every year, yep.

How often are the costumes changed or altered? I know some have been exactly the same for years, right?

Alissa: It depends on each year and if we have a new number. This year, we have the new finale called “Christmas Lights” where we have a brand-new costume to go with that number, but we also have numbers like the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and the “Holy Nativity,” which those costumes have been here since 1933 since they were first introduced into the Christmas Spectacular.

Alicia: Every Rockette who has done the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” has worn that version of the costume [points to the costume pictured above]. They were changed a little bit in terms of how the pants were made; now they make sure that the pants can actually stand up on their own. It’s actually funny—the wardrobe [department], sometimes when they’re setting them, you’ll just see pants standing without bodies in them because they’re so stiff to make us look like a wooden soldier.

So, let’s talk about your footwear. I’ve seen the Rockettes twice in my life—once when I was little and once last year—and I guess I never really paid close attention to the footwear. I didn’t realize you had a different pair of shoes for every costume.

Alicia: Every number has a unique special pair.

Do you get to rehearse in these shoes? 

Alicia: We can. During our rehearsal process we usually start out in our own personal rehearsal shoes, but wardrobe is really kind and great in terms of allowing us to have our show shoes available. I feel like most dancers like to break in their shoes in order to get them really comfortable.

Obviously, women wear heels all the time in real life and these are not the shoes that they’re wearing, but I feel like there has to be some sort of connection as far as comfort goes to your shoes and normal heels. Are there certain features in these shoes that provide the most comfort to you?

Alissa: I would say our “New York at Christmas” silver shoes—they are so comfortable. I think that’s because we have them fitted, they’re custom-made to our feet, and we can put insoles and stuff in them, and they mold to our feet as well. Obviously doing as much dancing as we do they are very flexible, and they’re just so comfortable. Sometimes I feel like I’m dancing on clouds!

Alicia: These specific shoes have a sole—I don’t know if it’s extra rubber at the bottom or what—but it makes it feel cushier when we’re dancing. So, I feel like even in real life when I’m shopping for shoes, I definitely look for a cushier sole.

Alissa: Absolutely. And these have a little bit more of a round toe as opposed to maybe a stiletto or something that has a pointier toe. The reindeer boots [pictured above] support your ankle and go up to about mid-calf. They’re so comfortable.

Alicia: I feel like the leather in our shoes, when it finally softens, makes it so comfortable to dance. In regular shoes, too, I feel like you’re waiting for that same sweet spot.

Those are stunning [pointing to the shoes above].

Alicia: Those are our new ones! They go with our new finale costume designed by Emilio Sosa. We call it our “jewel costume” because the inspiration for this was vintage Christmas lights. So the jewel tones that come out of those lights is what inspired the 3069 Swarovski crystals on each costume. And on each pair of shoes, I think it’s almost 600 stones. I think it takes about an hour and a half for each shoe to be rhinestoned.

Alissa: And you can tell that all of our tan shoes are all custom-dyed to each person’s skin tone.

Alicia: It makes it unique, too, to each woman. Oh, and the height of the heels, too, are custom. I think it’s 2 7/8 inches for the finale pair, and most of our other ones are about 2 inches.

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All of the heels have a sturdier bottom but kind of curve in?

Alicia: Yeah, they have a sturdier bottom. That makes it easier for us to find our balance and feel secure in our shoe rather than if the heel was thinner, say like in some of the ballroom dancing shoes, we wouldn’t be as stable. Especially for all of the eye-high kicks we do in the show, in order to jump back down and land, we need a sturdier heel.

Alissa: And we do up to four shows a day and up to sometimes 16 shows a week, so believe it or not—I mean obviously our feet get sore and fatigued—but these shoes are made so well and fitted to us so we’re able to do it and wear these heels all hours of the day.

Are all the shoes the same brand? What’s the fitting process like?

Alissa: We do have a couple of different brands—Capezio and LaDuca. “Soldiers” are the Capezio taps, and our Santa shoes are split-sole jazz shoes, but we put these spats on them to look like Santa boots. Our “Ragdolls” are Capezios as well [pictured above]. These are really cool—they’re a Capezio Mary Jane flat tap, but what’s also really cool about these—as well as our “12 Days of Christmas” tap shoes—these all have a custom-built mic pack in here. So these heels are custom and then you put the mic pack in here so all of the taps that you hear during “Ragdolls” and “12 Days of Christmas” are all live.

Alicia: So you have 36 mics, and they’re changed every show.

How fast are your quick changes?

Alissa: I’d say our quickest is 78 seconds where we go from “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” where we have a jacket, pants, hat (which is about two and a half feet tall), cheeks, gloves, white socks, and custom Capezio heels. From that, the lights go off, then we have 78 seconds to change into our “New York at Christmas” number with the big red bus, which is these beautiful dresses that we’re wearing now! They’re either in red or green and we change into the dress, we change into the coat, and then we change our gloves, and we put on earrings, and we put on a muff, and then our silver LaDuca shoes. All within 78 seconds to get right back on stage ready to go like nothing ever happened.

So how many costume changes are there in one show? How many numbers?

Alissa: There are nine dances and eight costume changes. 

Alicia: We do have help from dressers. It’s usually two women per dancer. They’re either waiting in the hallways with our costumes all pre-set with our shoes all pre-set so we can slip in. Some of us request a quick rig so we can just hook the buckle on instead of doing the actual buckle. It just depends on the woman and what they feel is most comfortable for them.

What has been the biggest wardrobe malfunction on stage? Are you allowed to say? For either of you or in history.

Alicia: I’ve maybe only had a clasp, it was like a halter thing I was wearing, and you know the clasp of the dress will kind of come undone, but we have so many safety precautions. You have your zipper, your eye-hook, a button hook—

Alissa: I would say, on occasion, during “New York at Christmas” when we have all this underneath these jackets, and it’s obviously a very sweaty show, sometimes things have gotten stuck and maybe you’re not able to get your jacket off fully. One time we were in Nashville doing “12 Days [of Christmas]” and a dancer’s tap shoe completely came off in the kick, and it just flew back behind. So she finished the kickline with one tap heel on, and then at the very end of it Santa came on and picked it up and went on the with the show. But you know, it is live theater! 

When is your first and last show of the season?  

Alissa: We open November 9, and we run through January 1.

When do you start rehearsals?

Alicia: Usually the beginning of October is when we start rehearsal. It’s about six weeks of rehearsals, six days a week, for six hours a day. So it is a full-time job starting in October through January.

So when you aren’t Rockettes what are you doing?

Alissa: It kind of varies. I’ll do other shows, musicals and stuff like that or teach dance, teach fitness—that kind of stuff.

Alicia: Same with me. I do other dance jobs around the city, and I know a lot of the women do fitness and teach fitness. Some of the women are moms as well.

Alissa: Real Estate agents, accountants—I mean all kinds of things.

What is the average age of the Rockettes right now?

Alicia: You have to be 18 to be on the line. There is no upper age limit. Since we re-audition every year, as long as they think you are still capable of doing the job, there really is no upper age limit.

Alissa: Just a height requirement, and that’s about it—5’6” to 5’10 1/2” and have to be 18.

You both must be so happy during this time of the year—it’s such a historic show.

Alicia: It is! My friend always says we’re like athletes dripping in diamonds. It is a lot of work, but being on the line, they kind of become your sisters.

Alissa: We see each other probably more than we see our own families. Or we see this building more than we see our own apartments. We spend just about every holiday—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s—with each other. All those major holidays.