Radio City Rockettes teach young dancers to “Shine”

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Rockette Taylor Shimko instructs dancers at The Academy of Dance Arts in Pleasantville, NY on "Shine" choreography. Photo: Kimberly Ammiano

Rockette Taylor Shimko instructs dancers at the Academy of Dance Arts in Pleasantville, NY. Photo: Kimberly Ammiano.

As students arrived for their first class of the season at the Academy of Dance Arts in Pleasantville, NY last month, a shiny black Escalade pulled into the parking lot. It stood out among the minivans, Toyota trucks, Volvos and Jeeps.

As the dancers rushed through the door, exchanging school clothes for black leotards and ballet shoes, two sets of shimmering silver tap shoes emerged from beneath the Escalade’s doors. Two sets of long legs followed, bearing women with red lips, and perfectly slicked back buns. The world’s most famous precision dance line, The Radio City Rockettes had officially arrived.

Inside the warehouse-like school, with its shelves bearing dance awards and trophies, Sally Bedus, 14, raced up and down the hallway nervously, in search of a black leotard.

“The Rockettes asked that all of the girls wear black,” said Jennifer Pollock, the studio’s owner. Bedus, in maroon, stood out among her classmates.

Bedus frantically looked around for her mom. She found her little brother and screamed, “Get mom now! I need black. Miss Jenn said I can’t dance if I don’t find black.”

A few weeks earlier, Pollock had received a phone call from Radio City. Her school had been selected as one of five area dance schools to participate in the Rockettes’ annual dance contest. The others were Studio L in Waldwick, NJ; Performing Arts Center of Connecticut in Trumbull, Conn.; and Miss Colleen’s Dance Studio and Variations, in Rockville Centre, NY, and Huntington, NY, respectively.

The Rockettes told Pollock that they wanted about 15 of her dancers to learn a one-minute portion of the contemporary ballet scene, “Shine,” from their Christmas Spectacular show. The routine would be filmed, and, along with similar performances from the other selected schools, posted to the Radio City Facebook page. Fans nationwide would get a chance to pick the best version.

After hanging up the phone, Pollock screamed with excitement. Then she began to think about how she would choose girls to participate.

The studio has a competitive dance team, but Pollock also chose students she felt would work hard, be excited, and pour time and energy into executing the routine.

“I also considered the families of these students, and who would help engage and promote the video-voting aspect,” she said.

With the class underway, eight-year Rockette, Nicole Baker reminded the girls to smile, straighten their arms, and move as a unit.

“Wherever the [end point] girl goes, you all go,” she said. “If she leaves and goes to the bathroom, you do the same.” After some uneasy smiles from the girls, Baker laughed, “That was supposed to be a joke,” she said.

Abby Levine watched her daughter through the waiting room window.

“Alyssa is going to go home and spend tonight practicing her kicks,” she said. Pollock also watched through the window.  “Who is that with the un-pointed feet,” she said. “We have to fix that before we film tomorrow.”

At the end of the class, Baker and her fellow Rockette, Taylor Shimko took questions from the girls. They told the girls about their education (Baker attended the University of Arizona; Skimko started performing professionally after high school). Asked what it takes to make it as a Rockette, the dancers spoke of taking chances and working as a team. When their public relations manager told them it was time to go, Baker asked for 10 minutes to answer more questions.

After a group picture, hugs and glowing smiles, the Rockettes made their way back to the Escalade, and the girls to their dressing room. Inside, the younger dancers got back on their iPhones, changed out of their ballet shoes, and all talked at once. “That was so cool,” one said. “That was way harder than I thought it would be,” said another.

Mina Agusky, 16, a slender Asian girl in dark above-the-eye eyeliner who has been dancing since she was three said the Rockettes had always seemed to inhabit another world. “To have them in our studio and teaching us made them real for us and proved that one day, we can be just like them if we work really hard,” she said.

The videos for the contest went live on September 30, and the contest will end on October 14.  The winning school will be awarded tickets to the Christmas show, a four-hour dance workshop with the Rockettes at Radio City, a behind-the-scenes- tour, and a question, answer, and photo session.

Pollock said that winning the contest would be a point of personal pride for her, the students and their families, but she acknowledged that she and her students had already achieved a kind of victory. “The real winning was in getting to see my dancers rehearse with the Rockettes, to see their faces light up as they walked into the room knowing what an honor it was to have been selected,” she said.

Bedus’s made it into the rehearsal after her mother brought her a black leotard. She learned something important from Rockette Nicole Baker, who passed on a piece of advice from the Rockettes’ choreographer: “Its better to be strong and wrong than to get things perfect on the first try.”

“As a dancer, learning that today was already a winning experience.” Bedus said. “I’ll carry that with me forever, regardless of whether we actually win the contest or not.”