Just for kicks

Are you a female between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-11? Are you at least 18 years of age? And, most importantly, can you kick eye-high?

If so, you may be eligible to audition for the world-famous Radio City Rockettes, renowned for their high kicks and precision dancing.

Fourth-year Education student Ericka Whitaker is one of the privileged few who made it through the rigorous and highly competitive audition process to perform as a member of the legendary dance troupe.

Whitaker, who has been dancing for 17 years, recalled seeing the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall when she was just 6 years old, and the image never left her mind.

"My parents took me to the show in New York at Radio City Music Hall, and I was just fascinated with the Rockettes," Whitaker said. "I started dance lessons a year before, so I thought it was so cool they were exactly the same. They were together -- that was the coolest thing."

She started dancing competitively around age 8 and continued until she came to the University in the fall of 2001. The next time she would compete would be for a spot with the Rockettes.

"I happened to be in New York with my mother in April 2002, and I decided to go over to Broadway Dance Theater to take a tap class with a previous tap instructor of mine," Whitaker said. "She told me to go over to the [Rockette] audition, so I decided to go over and try out."

The auditions attracted hundreds of girls, all vying for very few available spots. The tryouts required a proficiency in tap, jazz and ballet as the choreographers demonstrated routines rather quickly and expected dancers to pick up all of the detail and style.

Whitaker made it through all the rounds that day and was invited to come back the next day for callbacks, which involved lots of tap dancing, kicks and even some singing.

She made it through yet again and was invited to join the Rockettes. But this posed a slight problem: How could she attend the University and dance with the Rockettes?

Simply, it wasn't possible. So Whitaker took the fall semesters off in 2002 and 2003 to perform and arrived back at the University each year just in time for the spring semester.

"For the first week or so [back at school], it's harder to sit still in a desk because I'm used to being up and moving all day," Whitaker said. Performing with the Rockettes "was the experience of a lifetime, but I love being here at U.Va., so it was great that I was able to work it out to do both."

Rehearsal for the show, "The Christmas Spectacular," begins in October, and shows start after Thanksgiving, running until the end of December or the beginning of January.

But Whitaker wasn't performing at Radio City Music Hall, the show's most well-known venue. Instead, in the 2002 season she performed in Branson, Mo. and Phoenix, Ariz. and danced in Detroit, Mich. for the 2003 season.

"The creators and creative staff and producers just feel like everyone can't come to New York to see the show, so they decided to expand it and take the show on the road," Whitaker said. "Some people wonder, 'Are you the real Rockettes?' because you're in Phoenix or you're in Detroit, but we're all the same -- we just take the show on the road now and it has a spectacular turnout."

Despite the show's location, some things never change. One of Whitaker's favorite parts of the show, the live nativity scene, is one of them.

"We have an animal blessing [before the show] where we bring them all out downtown in Detroit and a local pastor blesses the animals," Whitaker said. This scene "is the conclusion, and it really brings out the meaning of Christmas and ties the show all together."

The number of girls in each city's cast is one of the varying aspects, depending on how big the stage is. The deciding factor is how many Rockettes it takes to span the stage, wing to wing, for the famous kick line.

"We do over 200 kicks per show -- that's per show, not per day," Whitaker said. "We all get a boost of energy there, every time we get in line and we do those kicks. That's what a lot of people want to see -- they love the rest of it, but they want to see us kick eye-high."

For a show this detailed and "spectacular," it takes a lot of practice: Rehearsals run generally nine hours a day for six days a week as the dancers prepare for the performance.

"I'm not going to say it was easy -- it was very challenging," Whitaker said. "They expect you to pick the steps up very quickly and on top of it, we're dancing in high heels. We work as a team, there's no star ... When we're out there, we're one group. It's one line when we're kicking -- it's precision down to the finger."

When they start performing the show toward the end of November, the Rockettes' schedule is no less rigorous -- two to three shows a day, six days a week.

"One of the beauties of our show is that it's live, so every night it's a different show," Whitaker said. "That's exciting, and I think that helps keep the magic there because you never know, anything could happen. Sometimes a girl's shoe will just fly off into the audience during the kicks -- generally people return them, which is nice."

But after two seasons with the Rockettes, Whitaker realized she needed to focus on her academic studies. She is currently a non-active Rockette, quick to cite their saying, "Once a Rockette, always a Rockette."

"I think it's just such an honor to be a part of such a legendary group," Whitaker said. "All the hard work that we put in -- it's all worth it when people respect it and they enjoy the show. I love the sisterhood of it -- I feel like we're forever a family."

Whitaker is currently studying sports medicine and hopes to pursue a career as a physician, incorporating her dance knowledge into her medical profession.

"I hope to be able to dance my whole life," Whitaker said. "I'll continue taking dance classes, but I want a career that can be long-lived too, because an injury could stop me from dancing."

Among her many goals, Whitaker would also like to become a dance teacher or even open her own studio to share her passion for dance with others.

But she also has plans to reunite with her Rockette family at some point. Whitaker said she misses the experience all the time and mentioned how it was strange to be home for the holidays instead of performing.

"I definitely plan to return and do it again because I love it -- I love being on stage," she said. "I'm a performer at heart, and it's nice to be able to showcase that ... I want to do so many things with my life -- who knows which way it will go."

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