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Dreaming to be a Rockette

Rockettes undergo grueling physical training and scrutiny before they are selected to perform in the world-renowned "Christmas Spectacular." Photo by Gene Schiavone/MSG Entertainment
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Unlike other kids, it was not the inflated balloons that most mesmerized Stacey Sund during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It wasn’t the floating cartoon Kermit, Mickey Mouse or even Spider-Man tethered to his strings.

It was the Rockettes that beguiled the girl from Jamaica Estates.

“I remember being in my pajamas and tap shoes in front of the television,” said Sund, who was little more than a crawler of 3 or perhaps 4 years old when she fell in love with America’s dandiest dancers. “Everything in the house would stop so we could watch the Rockettes.”

Like many fledgling danseuses her then tender age, Sund’s attraction was surely sensory — the sparkle of the outfits, glamor of the settings, metronomic clap of the tap shoes.

“It was a mystical thing,” she said. “This glamorous line of beautiful women dancing perfectly together.”

At the time, however, the young dancer couldn’t have imagined the rigors required to actually become a Rockette — the years of training and scores of teachers and dance forms, the sea of dedicated competitors and the indelible rejections.

It all paid off for Sund when her phone rang about eight years ago.

“I just could not believe it,” she said, recalling the day she learned that she had finally been accepted into the troupe after her third audition. “I called every single person I knew and told them. I felt like it was my big break, the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”

Endless audition

Stacey Sund began training as a dancer at age 4. She danced at Studio E on Union Turnpike in Bayside, with Robert Mann, at the Dance Zone, and even with a Russian pedagogue in the basement of the American Martyrs Church. She also studied at the Eglevsky Ballet School in Bethpage and at Broadway Theater Project.

She worked out in the dance program studio as a student at Cardozo High School and attended college at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied dance, acting and musical theater.

Sund first tried out for the Rockette’s during college with some fellow dancers.

“We had heard so many stories,” she said. “I remember thinking on that day that I want to find out more.”

By the time Sund arrived for her tryout, at about 6:30 a.m. on a spring morning, 300 or more dancers were coiled around Radio City Music Hall, all with the same aspirations.

“I am never going to get this,” she recalled thinking. “I remember girls standing in line with suitcases in their hands. They had just gotten off the plane from Pennsylvania and Florida.”

The dancers are first measured for height. Would-be Rockettes must be between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-10-1/2 and be no younger than 18.

She wore brightly colored leotards with tan tights “so they would be able to see my legs.” Her hair was slicked back and her lips glossed red.

Sund and a group of about 40 other dancers were taken into a room to learn the first dance combination. In groups of three, the dancers then perform the routine in front of Linda Haberman, the director and choreographer of the Christmas Spectacular.

“She is very intimidating, to say the least,” said Sund.

Auditioning, measuring and photographing the dancers is a two-day process, said Sund.

“Then you wait,” said Sund, who didn’t get a callback for two months after the audition. She auditioned again in August. This time, Haberman recognized her, and referring to her by name during the tryout, Sund recalled.

Still, it took several more weeks for her to get that special phone call that changed her life.

Starting anew

Both of the The Rockettes’ 40-member casts put on a total of 100 shows during the Christmas season. That’s a grueling schedule, even when compared to the most demanding Broadway musicals. Unlike Broadway, too, each of the Rockettes is essentially a leading lady in the show, adding an additional element of pressure.

“One thing I didn’t realize was how difficult it is and how tirelessly we practice,” said Sund. “When you watch on television it looks so easy.”

In September each year, the Rockettes begin six-hour, six-day-a-week rehearsals in preparation for their season of holiday performances, which begins in early November.

“We rehearse everything every year, as if it’s brand new to us,” said Sund, “so that it’s perfect.”

The Rockettes are celebrating their 85th holiday season in New York City this year. Their show includes many fan-favorite numbers, such as “Santa’s Workshop,” “The Living Nativity,” and “New York at Christmas,” during which the Rockettes board a double-decker Gray Line bus and take audiences on a virtual tour of Manhattan.

In “Let Christmas Shine,” the Rockette’s sparkle from the stage, as each dancer wears a costume adorned with more than 3,000 Swarovski crystals.

Two of the scenes in the show are in 3D, utilizing Radio City’s huge floor to ceiling LED screen.

In honor of this year’s anniversary celebration, a costume retrospective has been added to the show. A handful of Rockettes have been chosen to model the outfits the dance company has worn in performances throughout the decades.

Sund models a Rockettes costume from the 1960s. “I was so happy to be picked,” she said. “I love the costume, it is so much fun.”

Though hard-pressed to decide, Sund chose the costume retrospective and the perennial “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” when asked to pick her favorite numbers in the show.

After eight years as a Rockette, Sund hasn’t lost any of her enthusiasm.

“There are mornings I am really tired,” she admitted. “But then I see the lines waiting for the show and the little kids dressed up for Christmas in their pea coats. I am honored to be a Rockette.”

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular plays through Sunday, Dec. 30. For more information or to order tickets, call 866-858-0007 or go to www.radiocitychristmas.com.

Worth a Trip

Grace — The story about a Minnesota couple that moves to Florida to convert hotels into Christian-themed hotels, is an examination of the meaning of faith, fate, and love. Staring Paul Rudd, Ed Asner, Michael Shannon and Kate Arrington.

Closing Sunday, Jan. 6. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. Call 212-239-6200, or go to telecharge.com.

War Horse — The drama about the perilous adventures of a horse that moves from life on a farm into the battles of World War I. Story is told using uncanny puppetry and scenery.

Closing Sunday, Jan. 6. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St. Call 212-239-6200, or go to telecharge.com.

My Name is Asher Lev — Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel, the acclaimed drama tells the story of a Hasidic boy’s growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and of his conflicts with both his father and his growth as an artist.

At the Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd St. Call 212-239-6200, or go to telecharge.com.

Leonard Cohen — After touring to rave reviews in dozens of cities in continents around the world, and producing two live albums and a new studio album, Cohen and his band return to the area for a show at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Dec. 18, and at the Barclays Center, on Thursday, Dec. 20.

Both shows are at 8 p.m. MSG is at Seventh Ave. and 33rd St. in Manhattan, the Barclays Center is at 620 Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. Call 800-745-3000, or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

The Piano Lesson — Signature Theatre has extended the run of the revival of August Wilson’s esteemed play about an African-American family that is torn regarding a decision to sell an old family piano. Selling the piano would provide the Charles family with the money to make a fresh start. But the piano has powerful symbolic bonds to this family and to black history in America. The instrument was once traded for the family’s patriarch, during the slavery years.

At the Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Stage, 480 W. 42nd St. Go to www.signaturetheatre.org.

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