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Rockettes manager strives to keep troupe fit and healthy
Sunday, November 15, 2009

How do the 200 Radio City Rockettes dancing across the country in the 77th annual "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" keep up the stamina and stay free of injuries to perform hundreds of jump splits and thousands of eye-high kicks over seven weeks?

Taking ice baths, doing yoga and stretching, and, for energy, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread, said Elaine Winslow-Redmond, the precision dance troupe's manager of athletic training and wellness, who was a Rockette for 11 years before taking her current position.

Winslow-Redmond calls this snack "the Michael Phelps recovery meal because he is pretty well known for using that right out of the pool for replenishment."

The peanut butter gives dancers a needed dose of protein without upsetting their stomachs.

Rockettes are educated on eating healthy during orientation. Winslow-Redmond recommends no soda drinking and preparing foods with healthy oils, like olive oil, rather than butter.

On longer days, food is catered to the theater. A Rockette spread usually includes a pasta for carbohydrates, a meat or chicken for protein, a vegetarian dish and a dessert for a little sugar rush.

"Most of [the Rockettes] have a really good grasp on what they need to do to fuel their bodies to perform at this level," she said.

Eating right is only half the strategy. Coping with the blisters, swollen feet and aching muscles that come from dancing in up to 17 shows a week also is a challenge.

Foot, ankle and knee injuries are most common, Winslow-Redmond said. Athletic trainers try to address these issues by focusing on injury prevention.

Rockettes receive guides outlining exercises they can do to help prevent common injuries. Dancers arrive at rehearsals and performances at least 30 minutes to an hour early to stretch.

They also are encouraged to wrap their feet before dancing to prevent blisters and to ice them during breaks to reduce swelling. Ice is so soothing to aches and pains that some Rockettes take ice baths to unwind after a long day.

"It's a love-hate relationship [with the ice bath]," said Erin Harold, a Point Park University senior who is performing with the Rockettes for the second year. "At the beginning you hate it, but it's the best thing."

Rockettes stay fit during the nine months they are not rehearsing or performing in the "Christmas Spectacular" by taking yoga, pilates or dance classes. They also are welcome to train with Winslow-Redmond on a limited basis if needed.

"I feel like no matter what you do in the off season nothing can completely prepare you for what [Rockettes] do in training," Harold said.

New Rockettes begin rehearsals in early September, with veteran Rockettes starting practices three days after rookies. Rockettes assigned to touring casts rehearse in an abandoned mall in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Those performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York City remain in New York for rehearsals.

"Intense is a very good word for our rehearsals," said Annie Gibbons-Syke, assistant choreographer and dance captain, who also performs in the "Christmas Spectacular" as one of four swings, or understudies, that belong to each cast.

Rehearsals take place six days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a few breaks peppered throughout the day. Practices typically consist of reviewing staging and tweaking choreography to give the show extra pizzazz as well as learning to change costumes in 90 seconds.

"The amount of energy and athleticism that it takes to perform the show today [compared] to 10 years ago has definitely increased," Gibbons-Syke said. "As a dancer, I love seeing the new [choreography] that comes in. I think it keeps the show fresh and new. I think everybody always wants to see change, but you still got your classic numbers that you can hang on to."

Those classics include "The Living Nativity," a retelling of the first Christmas with live camels, sheep and a donkey, and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," which features the cast of 18 Rockettes donning starched pants and feathered headdresses while mimicking the stiff movements of a toy soldier. These numbers have been trademarks of the "Christmas Spectacular" since its debut in December 1933.

Another Rockette trademark is precision. Extra attention is paid during rehearsals to ensure that all dancers' kicks, heads, arms and even fingers move in sync. A movement as seemingly simple as placing hands on hips can be executed in nearly a dozen different ways, Gibbons-Syke said.

Performing such high-energy and precision-focused choreography requires a great deal of stamina from dancers. One tap number -- "12 Days of Christmas" -- lasts more than seven minutes and ends with 36 eye-high kicks. Rockettes perform around 300 kicks each show.

"Sometimes dancing is totally against what your body wants to do naturally," Harold said.

Dancers prepare for these grueling numbers through rehearsing them over and over to condition their bodies to endure them -- but never to the point that a Rockette's health is in danger.

"Everything is about prevention," Harold said. "If there is anything that doesn't feel right with our bodies we definitely go to our athletic trainers."

Rockettes get one day off a week during the performance season. Chances are you will find them kicking up their heels -- to relax.

"We take time to give our muscles a little bit of a break because they definitely need them," said Kristina Larson, who has been performing with the Rockettes for 10 years.

Despite all these preparations, injuries are inevitable. An athletic trainer is on site during all performances. More serious injuries are directed to local chiropractors, therapists and medical facilities that specialize in sports and dance medicine. UPMC Sports Medicine are tending to Rockettes' medical needs during their stay in Pittsburgh.

"As tired as you are, that's the most important time to stay so focused," Harold said. "That's when you need to be most on your game."

Sara Bauknecht can be reached at 412-263-3858 or sbauknecht@post-gazette.com
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First published on November 15, 2009 at 12:00 am