Kicking Up Her Heels

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Life-Long Rockettes Dream Fulfilled for Portsmouth Native

IMG_0904Portsmouth native Sarah Staker is living her dream, donning her signature red and white fur-trimmed costume each holiday season and performing perfectly synchronized high kicks as part of New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.

As a youngster, watching the Rockettes each year in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade inspired Sarah’s ambition to join the world-renowned precision dance team. After years of lessons and dedicated practice, along with unwavering support from her parents, Steve and Kathy Staker, Sarah became an official member of “America’s most iconic dance company” in 2010.

Life as a Rockette is a whirlwind of six-hour rehearsals, six days a week and four to six shows a day during the holiday season. Two casts of 36 dancers perform the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular, each appearing in 15 or 16 shows during a week. Rehearsals, held in an alternative space, begin in September for the holiday show and then move into Radio City Music Hall 10 days before the opening, This year’s Christmas Spectacular® opened November 7 and runs until December 31. Along with traditional acts like the “Living Nativity Scene” and “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a rag doll act originally performed in the 1940s has been revived for 2014.

“It shows a sillier side of the Rockettes as they play with toys and blocks,” Sarah explained.

This season’s production also highlights a high-tech, three-dimensional component with giant snowballs flying over the audience, guided by GPS systems, Sarah added. The show includes eight costume changes with the briefest change timed at 80 seconds. Each dancer’s shoes are equipped with a microphone to amplify the sound of their tap routines.

Now in her fifth season with the high-kicking dance company, Sarah described auditions for the Rockettes as “the longest and hardest ones I ever been a part of.”

“The first long day involved several cuts,” she said, recalling her first audition. “Then, round two with more cuts was held the second day. After surviving those, I was notified the next day that I had made the company and rehearsals started the following week for the show.”

The Rockettes audition yearly for the troupe and candidates must demonstrate proficiency in ballet, jazz and tap. The height of the performers varies from 5 feet, 6 inches to 5 feet, 10 1/2 inches to maintain a look of conformity in the dance line. Dancers range in age from 18 and older. Sarah reports that her cast includes two or three other Ohioans, and every week someone she knows attends the shows.

When the holiday show closes, Sarah devotes her time to taking classes and maintaining her regular exercise and fitness routines. The Rockettes often make special appearances during the rest of the year, and in 2015, they will star in a new Spring Spectacular™ at Radio Music City Hall. Sarah already has auditioned and been accepted for the production which opens with previews March 12 and officially runs from March 26 to May 3.

“The show is a love letter to New York, expressing why everyone loves the city,” Sarah said. “It will have a different energy and new technology.”

The pathway that led Sarah to her exciting career as a Rockette began when she started dance lessons at age three with instructor Lois Rase. Years of study, from age eight through high school, followed at Tammy Jo’s Studio in Greenup, Ky. Sarah remembers performing in every “Nutcracker” ballet presented by Tammy Jo during that time, as well as numerous recitals.

After graduation from Northwest High School in 2004, Sarah chose to attend Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, primarily because its dance program was an integral part of the musical theatre department where she also could gain intensive training in acting and voice lessons. During her four years there, she appeared in several musicals including “Cabaret,” “Ragtime,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Aida” and “West Side Story.” She helped choreograph “The Fantastiks” during her senior year and graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance.

“The Wright State Dance Department helped me grow,” Sarah said. “When you graduate from there, you are prepared for the real world.”

After graduation, “the real world” quickly presented opportunities for Sarah when she received a five-week scholarship with the Giordano Jazz Dance Company in Chicago and then performed on a Holland America® cruise ship for 15 months, touring the globe and visiting more than 30 countries. After regional gigs in St. Louis and Hilton Head Island, Sarah had saved enough money to hit the New York scene and begin her quest to join the Rockettes.

“New York is an iconic city…” Sarah said, “just like Frank Sinatra’s famous song. It is exciting and cool to get to be a part of the big city life every day.”

Next year will bring a completely new dimension to Sarah’s life when she marries her fiancé Bryan Wenstrom in June, but she is emphatic when asked about her future plans.

“I’m staying with the Rockettes as long as I can,” she declares.

Photos Compliments MSG Entertainment and Sarah Staker

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Kay Bouyack

Kay Bouyack is staff writer for the Scioto Foundation and a long-time freelance journalist for area arts and community organizations. She and her husband Ernie reside in Portsmouth, Ohio.

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