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It’s an iconic holiday tradition dazzling audiences for decades: the Christmas Spectacular starring the legendary Radio City Rockettes in New York City. And this year, the dance troupe is kicking their way into a big milestone: the celebration of their 90th anniversary!
Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) is proud to introduce to you our very own (former) Rockette. She’s Jen Fiandt, MNA’s Customer Experience Manager. Jen joined the kick line in 2002 and danced for 11 seasons.
MNA’s Chief Communications Officer, Tammy Pitts, caught up with Jen for a candid conversation about her time as a member of the ultimate American chorus line. As Jen explains, it’s bigger than holiday traditions and high kicks. With their dazzling costumes and precision kicks, she says being a Rockette is more than just a job– it’s a sisterhood.
What made you decide to audition for the Rockettes?
I was a Rockette for 11 seasons beginning in 2002 through 2012. I got the job when I was a freshman in college. I was a very serious dancer growing up, I've danced my entire life. I was a part of a competitive dance troupe in childhood and a number of women from my hometown, and from my home studio were actually Rockettes. So, I knew a little bit about what they were doing. And, of course, I've seen the Rockettes on TV and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade every year, as well as other appearances. And I just always thought it was the epitome of glamor and sophistication. And it just looks like such a fun and exciting thing to be a part of.
Hundreds try out for the show each year and only a handful make it. When you got in, how did you react? Were you shocked?
Yes, completely shocked. I was at home, I was living in my parents’ house–it was my first summer home after college. And I got a phone call. And I just was kind of I just didn't really understand what was happening.
But the fun thing about that –that first year- that first Christmas season I performed in Detroit. I was offered the position to perform at the Fox Theatre, which was even more exciting at the time, just because I knew I was going to be able to perform in my hometown, I'd be home for the holidays as well, which was always a compromise in performing with the troupe year over year. And I got to perform at the beautiful Fox Theatre, which feels like a real treasure and a real special spot for me at home as well. It was very exciting.
Were you nervous about auditions each year? How did you respond when you learned you made the cut? (And yes, Rockettes have to audition every year to remain in the group)
My situation was a little bit unique. Obviously, things have changed a little –there are only two casts in New York City now. But at the time, there were touring casts, and then casts for sit- down productions within theaters throughout the country. And when I began, I was in college, and I drove to Chicago to audition. And because I was only 19, I was a little bit naive, a little bit arrogant about what it was going to take, but it was actually my first professional audition ever. So that was a pretty unique situation that I was hired out of that first audition. I don't think that that is typically the case, but it was really exciting to do so.
It turns out I was pretty well prepared for the gig, but I was nervous for sure. I think I didn't know what I was getting into that initial year. I was just auditioning for fun–and not necessarily seeing this as my full career trajectory. But just something that I always thought would be neat to try and to do and so I went into it with a little bit less pressure on myself.
Once you're in– (in the group) you know, of course you want to continue to perform at your highest ability you know, what it entails, you know, how competitive getting into the troupe is. So, I was always a bit nervous and the years following, but luckily, you have some context– you already know some of the choreography and you just do your best.
What does it take to be a Rockette? What are the practices and training like? Walk us through those famous eye-high kicks!
It's a really rigorous set of requirements. In order to be a Rockette, you definitely have to be very athletic–you have to be very well-trained in classical dance ballet, jazz, and tap. And of course, the eye-high kicks as well with which is its own skill set for sure. The practices and rehearsals are six hours a day, six days a week once we begin for the season, so it's very intense once we get started. The Christmas Spectacular itself– the entire span of when rehearsals begin all the way out to when we end, the show around New Year— was approximately three to four months. So, you're learning to show in a matter of just a few weeks, sometimes learning an entire routine in one day. And then taking that to the stage, doing your technical rehearsals and then performing anywhere from typically two to four shows a day.
When would you start rehearsals?
Usually in September– it’s kind of dependent on the season and the scope of what the performances were going to be for the year. But you're training all year round. So, when you begin rehearsals, you're specifically learning the choreography for the Christmas Spectacular. But there are opportunities throughout the year for Rockettes to perform all over the country because it is sort of woven into the fabric of Americana. A lot of touring (presidential inaugurations for example and the Zumba National Convention which was a really fun and wacky and wild experience.) So, you're dancing all year round, but the primary bulk of the work is happening during that Christmas season, which begins in September and runs right through the new year.
The Rockettes are all about sisterhood. Can you explain that lifelong bond that the women share?
Yeah, that's my favorite thing about it. This year is the 90th anniversary of the Rockettes. They've been around a long, long time, beginning as the Missouri Rockets in 1925 before they came over to New York City. And so, it's a legacy in its own right.
Every woman who has performed on that stage as a Rockette has worn some of the same costumes such as the Parade of the Wooden Soldier costumes, where we've got the big hats and we're falling on that pillow. And so, when you put that costume on, for the first time, in, you look in the mirror, you realized there's a whole line of women before you historically that have done this. And so that feels already like its own bond before you even get to know the women in the cast.
But the biggest piece is that you're spending all of your time with a bunch of women who have a shared passion, who are equally intelligent and hardworking, and you're there to produce a collaborative result. It's because we're all doing the same work together side by side, I think there's that level of camaraderie and collaboration and just really having to be in tune and attune to one another in all of our movements on stage and off stage as well. Because it is as choreographed backstage as it is on stage.
So, you get to know everybody in all of the personal ways. We eat together and sleep in the same hotels. When we’re touring- we’re riding on buses for 12 hours. You're performing on stage, you're hanging out backstage, you're pranking each other, you become sisters, it really is just a fast bond, and then a lifelong bond as well.
Many of those women are still some of my best friends, and they always will be. I’ve gotten to know their kids, and gone to weddings and taken vacations with them. While I don't see everyone all the time– I can say that almost every Rockette that I've ever worked with– if I run into them now, it’s like no time has passed.
What do you want people to know, when they see the women performing? Like, are there any stereotypes?
I think people think dancers are a little dumb. You think of them as just kind of getting up there and showing off and being in the center of the stage. The thing about the Rockettes, in particular, but I think this is dancing in general- is that first of all, dancers are athletes. We're training the same way that any professional athlete you see on a basketball court or on a soccer field is. So, you have to be extremely strong, very strategic about the way that you train and care for your body. And that also really ties into the fact that the women are smart. You have a lot of information you have to pick up, you've got to be able to absorb choreography on the spot, which is unique to dance. You don't come in prepared, you have to learn it and match what you're seeing in real time. I'm very used to being in very collaborative, fast paced environments, working with a lot of diversity of different types of people with different skill sets. So, it's a really smart group of women.
And one of the cool things about being on stage that people don't realize is that we actually have this whole grid on the stage. I mean, of course, we're feeling one another on the stage, but there's markings all along the floor. And so, in a 90-minute show you’re thinking about how fast that choreography moves, and those numbers move. Every single step you take on that stage and in those 90 minutes has a specific placement on the grid of the stage. You're moving as fast as 1-2-3-4 and you're having to move two and a half numbers, right and then back half a foot–and then forward. So, there's math involved, there's just all of these other skill-sets that I think we tend to not really associate with being a dancer.
Your life has taken a different turn. You're no longer in New York City, but you're still front and center on stage here at MNA communicating with our members on a daily basis. What are some fun things they should know about Jen?
Besides being a lover of arts and culture, I'm a lover of nature as well. I spend a lot of time out on the trails, hiking and biking and just enjoying being outdoors.
Health and wellness is another passion of mine. I'm actually a trained therapeutic Pilates and yoga instructor and health coach. I’m very passionate about health and well-being –very passionate about communal well- being as well.
So, what's really neat about MNA is being able to connect with all of these different passions and these different ways of supporting community. And being front and center with these members really means I get to be a connector. It's connecting people to their feelings and to the holidays and to joy and to art and to their families.
And so now I'm doing it in a very different capacity in which I can support and be a connector for all of our nonprofits who are out there supporting their communities. I can connect them to one another– into their missions– and just be a part of their passion as well.
When Jen was asked if she missed being a Radio City Rockette she said, “I do. I really do. It’s very fast paced, and my body hurt a lot, but it was so fun and exciting. Nothing will ever match the uniqueness of the experience. I miss getting to meet different types of families from all walks of life and witnessing how the show impacted them. That for me was a very meaningful aspect of the work as well. A lot of times, it's a legacy thing for the folks off stage who are just coming to see the show. They bring their grandbabies and generations of families come together to see it. And so that part of it feels like –it really gets me in the holiday spirit. So, I missed that component a little bit. But it's fun to experience that through my friends who are still on the line now. And it's nice to be home for the holidays.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. May your holidays be full of warmth and cheer. To submit an idea for a blog or vlog, email Tammy Pitts: firstname.lastname@example.org