Nicole Baker can't see the faces of her friends and family as she kicks her way across the stage of New York's Radio City Music Hall. There was a time when she'd map out her place in Rockettes routines to help her mother find her in the militarily precise dance numbers of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
"I'd draw up diagrams to show her where I'd be standing at the beginning so she could follow along," Baker, 34, a native of Tampa, said. "Now, she can just pick me out."
A diagram won't help her 10-month-old daughter, Liv — her third child in six years — find Mommy in the pack of 36 dancers moving swiftly across the stage. But Baker's just glad that her children can see their mother doing what she loves for 16 shows a week through the new year.
"I don't know. Every year, I think, 'I can't believe I've been doing it this long.' It's been 10 years already," Baker said. "I'm not ready to give up this life."
It's a life of blending in rather than standing out. It's a life of grueling practice schedules and physical demands. It's a life of commuting from New Jersey six days a week and seeing her relatives in passing or for quick meals during the most wonderful time of the year.
She compensates by taking her vacations to Tampa to be with her family and friends from Mary Jo's Academy of the Performing Arts and Blake High School. Her parents and friends, in turn, come to see her every year in the pinnacle of her career, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
To prepare, all dancers rehearse six hours a day, six days a week for months. The jam-packed schedule reflects the run of the show, which is performed every day, several times a day, from Thanksgiving week through Jan. 3. Creative directors divide the troupe into two teams of 36 dancers with four alternates, but that still means each dancer will likely perform 16 times a week through December.
Baker calls it a small price for a place in history.
"My favorite number would have to be Soldier. There are no kicks, but the movements are so precise, and it's been performed since 1933," she said. "To be able to get up there and perform a piece in the same way that it has been done for decades is a great feeling."
She also feels great about living her dream to be a professional dancer without giving up her dream to become a mother. She knew it would be difficult, but she credits her supportive husband with her ability to get back to work almost immediately after giving birth.
"I went back into rehearsals two weeks after I had Liv," she said. "My doctor cleared me to return, so I went right back."
At 34, she knows that the clock may be running out on a physically demanding career like dance. Dancers re-audition for their places in the Rockettes annually, and ability is the biggest factor in getting a spot.
Baker heard about Rockette auditions in Los Angeles while attending the University of Arizona in Tucson. She made the trip out in 2003 and got the lone job offer out of the 200 women that made it to the tryout.
"The first year was really difficult because I was the only new girl on my line," she said. "But it got easier over time." Now she's nearly indistinguishable from her colleagues on stage, a high honor for a venerable Rockette.
Moving to New York was jarring, the cold weather and crowded streets, but it only took one Christmas for the Florida girl to fall in love and never look back. She has since become a fan of snow around the holidays, layered clothing and the gorgeous decorations inside and outside Radio City that reflect the season.
Being in New York at Christmastime comes second only to seeing the historic holiday show.
From the classic show-ending Rockettes kick line to the choreographed routines with Santa Claus, the Christmas Spectacular is as much a part of America's traditions as hot dogs and fireworks. People who have never made the trip to New York in December have seen the storied Rockettes performing either in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or on televised holiday specials. The troupe also tours the country with its shows, extending the legend from coast to coast.
But Baker said the Rockettes really shine in New York at the holiday season.
"There's just something about being in New York at Christmas. Sure, it's cold. But the atmosphere, the tree at Rockerfeller Center. It's just magical."
Contact Robbyn Mitchell at [email protected] Follow @RMitchellTimes.