published Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Kennedy: Rockettes prepare to rock the Grand Ole Opry House

The world-famous Rockettes will bring the Radio City Christmas Spectacular to Nashville Nov. 16.
The world-famous Rockettes will bring the Radio City Christmas Spectacular to Nashville Nov. 16.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    The world-famous Rockettes will bring the Radio City Christmas Spectacular to Nashville beginning Nov. 16.
    Photo by Contributed Photo

Every couple of years some of the world-famous Rockettes come to Chattanooga on a publicity tour.

Two of them arrived in the newsroom one day earlier this month looking like Christmas-tree ornaments with legs.

They were here promoting their annual Christmas shows at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. This year, the curtain goes up Nov. 16.

Years before reality television shows such as “Dancing With the Stars” (ABC) and “So You Think You Can Dance” (Fox) transformed sequined dancing into a weeknight spectator sport, the Rockettes were dancing’s Dream Team.

I never imagined one of them might be a small-town girl from Tennessee.

Alina Duncan, a Rockette since 2005, said she grew up in Hendersonville, which is about 17 miles northeast of Nashville. Duncan is not doing the Nashville shows this year. Instead, she’s on the big stage, Radio City Music Hall in New York.

At 5 feet 6 inches tall, Duncan barely qualifies as a Rockette, who must all be between 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 10 inches tall to dance in the line.

“It’s an illusion that we’re all the same height,” she said. “The taller ones are in the middle.”

Like millions of little girls in Middle America, Duncan dreamed of becoming a professional ballet dancer. One of four siblings, she had to compete for carpool time to get to dance rehearsals in Nashville until she got a driver’s license at age 16.

At 18, she didn’t have the confidence to take off for New York, so she enrolled instead at the prestigious ballet program at the University of Cincinnati, where she joined the ranks of “bun heads” (her words).

In 2002, a college friend saw a flyer for a Rockettes audition in Chicago and asked Duncan to tag along.

“I didn’t know if I was tall enough,” she remembers. “But I packed my tights and my character heels (tap shoes) and took off.”

She made it to the second day of auditions, practicing all night in front of a full-length mirror next to a hotel elevator.

“After that audition, I had a newfound confidence in myself,” she said.

Two years later, she was working as a dancer for Celebrity Cruise Lines on the West Coast. While her ship was in dry dock, she slipped off to another Rockettes audition in Los Angeles.

This time she made it.

Now she’s a seasoned veteran and trains like an athlete to keep her body in tune. In a single day, a Rockette may do four shows; which, if you’re counting, adds up to 1200 eye-high kicks. (Please don’t try this at home.)

The rewards are great for a member of an iconic 85-year-old American brand.

“When you tell people you’re a Rockette,” Duncan says, “their faces light up.”

It’s a long way from Hendersonville to the Big Apple, but getting there is a huge kick.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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