When Tara Dunleavy took the stage as a Radio City Rockette in the “Christmas Spectacular” earlier this month, there was one tiny pair of eyes in particular that she was looking out for in the audience: those of her 11-month-old daughter, Ava.
Dunleavy, a first-time mom, has been a part of the 80-member precision dance team since 2006, after graduating from Hofstra University with a degree in dance.
Determined to reclaim her spot in the iconic kick line this holiday season, Dunleavy performed in the short-lived summer production, the “New York Spectacular,” until she was five months pregnant. As soon as she got the OK from her doctor, six weeks after giving birth, she got back into rehearsal mode and resumed her pre-baby workout routine of yoga, spin and dance classes.
Come annual casting time, her preparation delivered. This year, she is one of just four moms in the legendary dance company.
“You never know how long you’ll be able to do this for and to be able to now say that I can come back and share it with my daughter, is just kind of incredible,” says Dunleavy, 35, of Oceanside.
A dancer since age 3, Dunleavy had long dreamed of being a Rockette after seeing the “Christmas Spectacular” as a young girl with her family. As she approached 18 — the age of eligibility to become a Rockette — Dunleavy feared it might be too tall an order.
“I’m 5-foot-6, so I didn’t think I was tall enough,” says Dunleavy, who is now in her 12th season. “So I was intimidated to go to the Rockette audition.”
Rockettes must be between 5-6 and 5-10½ and be proficient at ballet, tap and jazz.
TRAINING FOR THE TROUPE
Dunleavy tried out for a spot as an ensemble dancer in the “Christmas Spectacular” in college. She didn’t get the job and instead finished her senior year at Hofstra. In 2006, she auditioned for a role as a Rockette and was cast on her first try.
For Long Island natives Eleni Gavalas and Kristen Smith, training alongside the Rockettes as teenagers helped them have a literal leg up on the competition years later.
Gavalas, who grew up in Manhasset, and Smith, who got her start as a dancer at age 3 at Tap to Pointe Dance Center in her hometown of Malverne, where she trained until she was 18, both took part in a Rockette summer intensive dance program at Radio City for three years in their teens.
“I would definitely say learning the technique and the style and getting to see a bit of the lifestyle of being a Rockette before I became one really helped me at the audition,” says Smith, 24.
The one-week program — designed for advanced dancers — is entering its 16th season and has produced more than 70 Rockettes. It provides intensive training with the Rockettes and a director or choreographer from the production. It culminates in a showcase.
“My third year at the Rockettes summer intensive, I had also auditioned for the ‘Christmas Spectacular,’ and that was the same year that I got cast,” says Gavalas, 24. She can still vividly recall looking out at her family in the audience. “That was really special, to have my parents there when I got offered the job.”
Gavalas, Smith and Courtney Rottenberger, a Bethpage native, all tried out three times before being cast as Rockettes.
“I kept on coming back and it’s been my dream come true,” says Rottenberger, 32, a sixth-year Rockette.
PRACTICING AND PERFORMING
In the six weeks leading up to the launch of the “Christmas Spectacular,” which runs through Jan. 1, the Rockettes practice six days a week for six hours a day. At the height of the holiday season, the Rockettes can perform in up to 17 shows a week and as many as four a day. The women average about 300 kicks per show. Since 1933, they have delivered such iconic numbers as the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” in which they don wooden soldier costumes and rigidly cascade to the floor. It’s that kind of legacy that these Long Island women say keeps them kicking.
“Since I’m from Long Island, I was able to come to the city every year with my family and see the show and it’s always such a special memory for us,” Rottenberger says. “And now for me to be able to be part of other families’ holiday traditions, is just really rewarding and special.”
Radio City ‘Christmas Spectacular’
WHEN | WHERE Daily through Jan. 1, 1260 Avenue of the Americas
INFO 866-858-0007, rockettes.com/christmas
TICKETS Tickets start at $49