By Audrey Richardson
Special To The Standard
High kicks and high energy — that’s what it takes to be a one of New York City’s esteemed Rockettes.
No one knows this better than former Rockette Jan Macdonald. Macdonald, who now lives in Quechee, visited the Thompson Center last Tuesday in Woodstock and gave a talk on her experiences as a Rockette in the early 60s.
For Macdonald, being a Rockette was an opportunity that came to her on a whim.
Growing up in Ohio, Macdonald had been a dancer all her life, starting at the age of four. “In those days we went right in to the hard toed shoes,” explained Macdonald. At the age of twelve, Macdonald traveled to New York City with her mother and brother and saw the Rockettes live for the first time. “To be a Rockette was, wow!” exclaimed Macdonald to full room.
Once she was married, Macdonald found herself living in New York City with her husband and three young children. But it wasn’t until her children were in school that Macdonald considered going back to her dancing roots. After the urging of a friend, Macdonald decided to try out for the well-known dance troop. To her surprise, Macdonald was selected as one of the first string dancers. “My heart was in my throat the entire time,” said Macdonald about her initial audition.
Macdonald would go on to be a part of the group for the next ten months practicing six hours a day, five days a week and with two performances a week. The routines were, and are known to this day, for their tight movement and challenging choreography. “Precision, precision, precision: that’s what is was all about. You didn’t dare cough or lose your smile, and if you tripped, well it was all over,” said Macdonald. Macdonald wore wigs and what she called “grease paint” a type of intense make up that was so thick it could only be removed with mineral oil.
“They were professional and they were glamorous,” said Macdonald. The women were provided lunch during their rehearsals, and Macdonald remembers some not so glamorous food such as Jell-O, cottage cheese as well as fruits and vegetables.
Macdonald recalled one of the Rockettes’ signature moves, “linking up” where the entire woman would link arms and move as one saying, “You got to the place where you were a complete part of the girls next to you.” Other moves like the high knee, high kick that make the Rockettes so identifiable will now only be a memory. For the first time in history this choreography will not be a part of the most recent show.
Macdonald has limitless memories of the beautiful costumes and honor she felt gracing the stage as a Rockette.
“The Rockettes were a symbol of America,” recalled Macdonald with pride. In the early 1960s the average life span of a Rockette was approximately five years Macdonald left after nearly a year. “I loved it, but it was tough with a family at home, and I joined in my 30s rather than my late teens like the other girls,” said Macdonald. Although most of the other women in the dance company were living together in small apartments in the city, Macdonald had a different life to return home to with different responsibilities. “I was lucky to have a home to go to, but I didn’t bond as much with the other girls. They certainly built a strong relationship with each other — like a sisterhood,” said Macdonald.
After her time with the Rockettes, Macdonald would go on to live in London for 20 years and Moscow for 10 years with her second husband, Bruce. In Moscow they were so taken with her history with the Rockettes that she was ask to help organize and choreograph for a Russian cheerleading troop. Although Macdonald declined the offer, she will never forget her inspiring experience and will continue to share this rare glimpse into a very special profession.
This article first appeared in the December 1st edition of the Vermont Standard.