Professional dancers Gabrielle Del Re Ashley and Kristina Larson-Hauk will be home for the holidays this year. Yet it will be something of a busman's holiday for the suburban natives, who will spend most of the next two weeks performing two to three shows a day as part of "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular."
Ashley and Hauk are members of the Radio City Rockettes, the famed precision dance ensemble that headlines the show which returns to Rosemont's Akoo Theatre Friday, Dec. 14, after a four-year absence. The women say there's nothing they'd rather do than perform for an audience.
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"The Radio City Christmas Spectacular"Where: The Akoo Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont (847) 745-3000 or ticketmaster.com or akootheatre.com
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14; noon, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15; 1 and 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Friday; noon, 3:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 26, Dec. 28 and 29; noon and 3:30 p.m. Dec. 24; 3:30 and 7 p.m. Dec. 27; noon and 3:30 p.m. Dec. 30
"It brings me so much joy and it fills my heart in such ways it's hard to describe," said Ashley, a native of Hanover Park who currently lives in Pingree Grove. "I feel honored to be able to do what I love and bring joy to other people."
Both women are keenly aware of the Rockette legacy -- and their part in maintaining it.
"For us to perform those numbers that women have done since 1933 is inspiring to us," said Hauk, referencing such signature Rockettes numbers as the "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Hauk, who grew up in St. Charles and currently lives in Yorkville, calls it "an honor to be doing those moves."
The "Christmas Spectacular" also features singers, a Living Nativity, a visit from Santa Claus and the new Rockettes' number "New York at Christmas," where the dancers tour the city in a double-decker bus. The finale, "Let Christmas Shine," is also new. Each costume for that number includes 3,000 crystals, and the choreography features the group's trademark "eye-high" kicks.
"It's a sight not to be missed," said Ashley.
Ashley received her early classical dance training at Elgin's Lisa Boehm School of Ballet and at the Fauborg Ballet Academy in Hanover Park.
After graduating from Streamwood High School, she joined the Ballet Theater of Chicago. She never imagined she'd become a Rockette. But in 1999, Ashley decided to tag along to an audition with her older sister, a member of the ensemble who -- like all Rockettes -- is required to audition every year. The classically trained Ashley impressed the producers, who offered her a spot.
"I was blessed to get the job," said Ashley, who danced with her sister for five years until her sister retired.
Like Ashley, Hauk believed membership in the Rockettes was beyond her grasp.
"I watched them as a child and thought they were amazing and glamorous," said Hauk, whose family moved to St. Charles when she was a teenager.
She began dancing at age 6 and studied at the Joel Hall and Lou Conte studios in Chicago and later with River North Dance Company before becoming a Rockette.
Twelve years and countless high kicks later, Hauk still relishes her good fortune.
"It has been such an amazing experience," she said. "It's such an honor to be part of such an incredible group of women."
The group traces its origins back to 19th century England. After introducing a precision dancing ensemble in 1885, impresario John Tiller brought the group to the Folies Bergère in Paris, where they performed the "pony kick," precursor to the "eye-high" kicks for which the Rockettes are known. In 1900, the Tiller Girls came to America and joined The Ziegfeld Follies.
Inspired by their success, Russell Markert introduced the Missouri Rockets, comprised of taller women who could tap dance, in St. Louis in 1925. They caught the eye of S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel who dubbed them the Roxyettes and brought them to New York City to perform at his theater, the Roxy. The Rockettes performed at the 1932 opening of the Radio City Music Hall. The following year brought the first holiday extravaganza.
Dancers must be at least 18 years old, stand between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-10½ and be fluent in ballet, jazz and tap. Singing is a plus. Versatility is paramount, says Ashley.
"You can never be comfortable," she says. "You have to keep up with your training and make sure your mind is as sharp as your body."
Rehearsals are rigorous, said Hauk, with choreographers breaking steps down to the most minute detail.
"It's a lot of long hours and a lot of hard work. Our bodies are put through the wringers," she said. "But we're athletes and we're trained to do this."
As much as they love dancing for a living, the women say one of the things they enjoy most about being a Rockette is the friendship that develops between dancers who spend six hours a day, seven days a week preparing.
It makes for a close-knit group, said Ashley.
"It's a bond that lasts a life time," said Hauk.