Ex-Rockette again pressed into service

Published Dec. 26, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

Lois Alston will never forget the day she auditioned for the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in the early 1980s.

"I have real large feet, and the director went down the line asking height, weight, shoe size," Ms. Alston said. "She said, "I'm sorry, we don't have shoes to fit your feet.' I wear an 11 narrow."

Ms. Alston _ who was then Lois Ann Wells from Zephyrhills _ was determined to be a Rockette. She ran downstairs to the wardrobe department, squeezed her feet into some size 10s, the largest size available, then scurried back upstairs where the other Rockette aspirants were learning the tryout routines.

"The director told me, "You just need to watch these groups some to pick up on the jazz, ballet and tap combinations.' When it was over, she stood by the piano and called out my name. I thought she was eliminating me because I had such big feet. But she was telling me I had the job."

A week later, Ms. Alston was on the famed Radio City Music Hall stage, doing eye-high kicks with 35 other Rockettes. She danced with the group for the next five years, doing the big Radio City Christmas Spectacular and Easter shows, traveling to Europe for special tourism promotions for New York City, dancing in the debut commercial for Diet Coke and performing at everything from a debutante ball to big industrial marketing events all over the United States.

That first summer, she danced "swing," filling in for vacationing or absent Rockettes on a moment's notice.

"It's how you earn your wings as a Rockette," she said. "The girl who works the line works up and down the line, so you have to learn all the routines."

You may turn to the right in one slot, but go left if you dance in another position.

"When you first go in, they really work you to see what you can really do. If you're doing two or three shows a day, when the other girls are taking a break, you keep rehearsing. They really break you in."

The memories of those wonderful five years were brought back to her in October, when she got a telephone call at her Dade City home from the marketing department of the New York Music Hall Rockettes.

The Rockettes were coming to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to do a version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and they wanted Ms. Alston to train 16 girls ages 10 to 13 to form a Junior Rockette Troupe to perform in the 7:30 p.m. show on Monday.

"This is the first time Radio City Music Hall has done anything like this," Ms. Alston said.

She volunteered to find music, do choreography and set up rehearsals _ something she had done countless times when she had Lois Ann's Dance School in east Pasco before her Rockette days.

"They said, "Stop. We'll send the music that goes with the show.' They equipped me with music and video, so this choreography is all Radio City Music Hall; everything is put together according to their wishes," Ms. Alston said.

First, the 16 young girls had to be found to be in the dance line. Two former Rockettes and two representatives of the sponsoring company, WMTX-FM 100.7 radio station, chose the dancers from a field of 60 auditioners. Eight of the Junior Rockettes are from Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, the rest from all over Florida.

Six five-hour rehearsal sessions were set up at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and at Julie McPheron's Song and Dance Inc. studio in Wesley Chapel, where the girls were also fitted for their costumes.

Ms. Alston got the assignment through her longtime friend and fellow Rockette, Lynn Sullivan, who is now one of the choreographers of the show.

"The marketing department contacted her with the Junior Rockette idea," Ms. Alston said. "She was the one who gave them my name."

The 16 Junior Rockettes are getting a taste of what it's like to be a Rockette: long rehearsals, costume fittings and lots of excitement.

But it's nothing like being the real thing in New York City.

"I remember doing three shows a day on a regular basis," Ms. Alston said. "We worked six days a week. I remember one time performing seven straight months without coming home."

The shows came so close together that the Rockettes often brought sleeping bags and slept on the dressing room floor between shows, she said.

The only downside came after late shows.

"New York was very dangerous," she said. "I never took the subway, but I would take the E trains or a bus. Still, you had to walk a couple of blocks. I'd take a cab if it was very late, but we had to remove our makeup and change clothes after a show. By the time we got out, the patrons had gotten all the cabs.

"I had my share of scary moments."

Now, she, her husband, Jeff, the Dade City postmaster for 30 years, and their two sons, Ryan, 14, and Leland, 16, live in quiet Dade City.

Ms. Alston is putting her bachelor of arts degree in marketing from the University of South Florida to good use as a financial adviser and investment broker with American Express Financial Services' office in Wesley Chapel.

As for her Rockette days, she has only one regret.

"Some of the Rockettes did backstage tours, but I never did one," she said. "I wish I had, because they learned the history and all the good stories."