A Brand-New Rockette Interviews a Veteran Rockette

November 6, 2019

Every year, hundreds of dancers audition for a chance to become a Radio City Rockette. Only a lucky few make the cut—this season, there are 13 newbies on the line—but many of them go on to perform with the Rockettes for years. Dance Spirit had the chance to listen in as first-year Rockette Mara Ranson asked 10-year veteran Corey Whalen all her burning questions about what it’s really like to dance in the world’s most famous kickline.—as told to Helen Rolfe

10-year veteran Rockette Corey Whalen (center) with her fellow dancers (courtesy MSG Photo)

Mara: Hi, Corey!

Corey: Hi, Mara!

M: How did you learn about the Rockettes?

C: My family got tickets when I was 16. I thought they were really amazing, but I was very shy as a young dancer—not exactly running into the next audition. When I turned 18, my teacher pushed me to audition.

M: What was that first audition experience like?

C: Petrifying! It was my first professional audition. I got there early, but the line was already wrapped around Radio City. The audition itself was intense. I had no prior knowledge, so it was all brand-new information, but I was called back for the next day. I made friends with a girl who came to the hotel where my mom and I were staying, and we practiced together overnight. The next day, I went back and made it through. But, in the end, I didn’t get a call. I went to the Rockettes Summer Intensive the following summer, and got a much better idea of what the Rockettes expect, which helped at my next audition. But that first experience was nerve-racking.

M: Oh, I know. My first two or three auditions, I was a nervous wreck and didn’t do well at all.

C: Your nerves get the best of you a bit!

M: What has changed for you since you started?

C: What the Rockettes do is so precise that it’s almost like a math equation. My first year was so overwhelming, learning every precise detail as to where your fingertips and eyeballs are. But once you get one or two seasons under your belt, those things become second nature. Now I’m able to focus on nuances and enjoying the choreography without stressing about where my foot is going.

M: What helped that first season?

C: Honestly, the women you work with make all the difference. You’re one of 13 new girls. I was one of eight. You create incredible bonds with the new dancers because you’re all going through it for the first time. And the veterans you befriend are life-changing, too. A veteran swing my first year was my saving grace. She’d write down notes and little pictures that helped me.

M: Would you say that’s what surprised you most—how much of a math equation it all is?

C: I think so. Plus, the workload is something a lot of dancers haven’t experienced: six hours a day, six days a week. When I started, I was in a touring group, so there was only our one cast. We did insane amounts of shows back to back. Now, you’re doing four shows in a day and coming back the next for more.

Whalen (seated, in the red dress) having fun with other Rockettes (courtesy MSG Photo)

M: Speaking of those four-show days: What have you found helpful to get through them?

C: The other girls! You’ll get to know the seven other women in your dressing room really well. I’ve been with my same girls for going on five seasons. There’s always someone to lift you up. My dressing room does Secret Santa during our four-show days, so there’s always something to look forward to. You need it—it’s a looooooooong day.

M: Those 10 pm shows, right?

C: Get ready for ’em!

M: Was there a moment when it hit you in your first season, like, “Wow, I’m a Rockette!”

C: I’m from Rhode Island and, by luck, the first city we toured to was Providence, RI. Opening night, we put on our costumes and men from the U.S. armed forces escorted us down a red carpet into the theater. They had fake snow raining down, everyone was cheering—it was such a surreal moment. To arrive at a theater that I grew up going to, knowing I was going to perform with all my family and friends there for opening night…I’ll never forget it.

Rockettes in “The 12 Days of Christmas” (courtesy MSG Photo)

M: What a serendipitous moment! Do you have a favorite number in the show?

C: I honestly love “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Tap isn’t my strongest suit, but as my 10 seasons have gone on, I’ve really enjoyed getting to experience all the different “days,” where you’re dancing as a swan or a piper or a goose.

M: I’ve always loved “12 Days.” It’s also my favorite costume. Do you have a favorite?

C: I love that one, too. It’s such a classic Rockette look, with the corset and the frilly tutu. And your family can still pick you out, without a wig or ragdoll glasses in the way!

M: Throughout your seasons of doing the show on the road and at Radio City, there’ve been lots of changes. Any numbers from the past that you miss?

C: I’m sure I’m not alone in this—a lot of women who’ve done the show also really loved “Shine.”

M: It’s my favorite finale.

C: I started with it on the road. The scrim comes up, there’s a bluish, foggy light on us. We’re in shimmering costumes covered in 3,000 Swarovski crystals, so we were just dripping in diamonds. Right before, they showed a video going through the history of the Rockettes. Hearing those words as we went up on the beautiful staircase, we felt like we were carrying on this amazing legacy.

M: We’re in Christmas mode for months and months. Do you get sick of Christmas?

C: A lot of people ask me that. I don’t know how you feel, but I compartmentalize. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas music.

M: I was having this conversation with my sister the other day, telling her my brain doesn’t even register that it’s Christmas music.

C: The holidays have never been ruined for me, and it’ll probably be the same for you. The show is one part of Christmas, and celebrating with your family and friends is another.

M: What has been your coolest experience as a Rockette?

C: The Rockefeller Center tree lighting. It was a smaller group of us, and we got to do “Shine.” The audience is close, which is cool because you can watch them—

M: Experiencing it with you?

C: Yes! As soon as we were done, we lined up with the NBC anchors and the mayor and watched as they lit the tree up.

The famous double-decker bus in “New York at Christmas”

M: That’s awesome. Any onstage mishaps that stick out in your mind?

C: One of the funniest happened on the road in Omaha, NB. We enter for “New York at Christmas” on a double-decker bus. There are two bus doors—one at the front, one at the back—but only one set of doors opened. We were looking off into the wings for our dance captain, wondering what to do. Finally, crewmen came onstage, trying to manually push the bus upstage so we had room to dance.

M: What do you think being a Rockette in 2019 means?

C: It’s a testament to the company that the Rockettes have been at Radio City since 1932 and are still such a part of NYC culture. I meet families who come to the show every year, and they’ve seen the evolution of the Rockettes over time. Anybody can see that the intensity of the dancing has advanced over the years. It takes some pretty strong, athletic women to get through 100 shows in under two months. You’ll feel like a rock star when you finish the season!

M: Final question: What has being a Rockette taught you about yourself?

C: I didn’t know I could be this disciplined. It’s a very intense 90-minute show with very little recovery time. On top of that, the friendships I’ve made are unlike anything else. I had women at my wedding that I met on day one of Rockette boot camp. You share a bond unlike any other.