They rocked back then — and they still do. The kicks may not be eye-high, but their impact on charity and fitness is a showstopper.
Long after the applause, many Radio City Rockettes also remain friends. "This is a sisterhood," says Patty DeCarlo Grantham, 70, president of the 400-member Rockette Alumnae Association. "We bear witness to each other's coming of age and young theatrical life."
For more than 75 years, the Rockettes have kicked off the winter holidays with the annual Christmas Spectacular in New York's Radio City Music Hall. This season's show continues through Dec. 30.
Although they're no longer gracing that stage, many former Rockettes apply the same discipline and enthusiasm to other endeavors. While supporting charitable causes, they enjoy motivating people to exercise.
"I love every minute of bringing my friends from all over the U.S., England and Canada together again — to put on the tap shoes and dance for our favorite charities or just to be with each other and reminisce," says Grantham of Englewood, N.J.
In November 2009, former Rockettes performed for the association's members and spouses — 300 attendees in all — raising $10,000 this year for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America's New York chapter. In 2005, the association gave $10,000 to the USO of Metropolitan New York — a "home away from home" for men and women of the Armed Forces during war and peace. And for years, they endowed the Russell Markert scholarship for a female dancer at the Julliard School in Lincoln Center. Markert was the Rockettes' founder and chief choreographer — a father figure devoted to his "dancing daughters" until he retired in 1971.
Then and now
Back when Grantham was a dancer, the troupe performed seven days a week, starring in four shows daily, 365 days a year. "We got one week off after working three weeks, but we were paid for every day of the year," she says. Now, the Rockettes' routines are seasonal only.
In 1959, an 18-year-old Grantham joined the famed dance team. She married in 1969 and left the following year. Unlike nowadays — when Rockettes re-audition each holiday season — "in the '70s, '80s and '90s, girls sometimes stayed as long as 30 years," Grantham recalls. "There were fewer job opportunities for dancers and being a Rockette was the best job around."
Grantham now owns Summer Kicks Fitness Studio in East Hampton, N.Y., which she founded in 1988. "We've been going strong ever since," she says of the studio, which offers strength training, step aerobics and spin bike classes.
Another Rockette from Grantham's era also made her mark in fitness. Joy Prouty, 69, of Delray Beach, Fla., trained Reebok instructors in 36 countries. Now, she works for Zumba Fitness, a Latin dance workout program, and helped develop the Zumba Gold Program for active older adults.
The death of her husband at age 44 after a long illness was a defining moment for Prouty. "It was definitely a call to faith and action," she says. Then a 34-year-old widow with three children, Prouty learned to fend for her family.
Even today, "I work like a maniac," says the grandmother of seven, who became a Rockette in 1959 at age 18. The following three years in the kick line instilled an unwavering can-do attitude.
She has collaborated on a fitness book for breast cancer survivors, and volunteers to help survivors with rehabilitative exercises. She also created a walking program for city employees in West Palm Beach, Fla., where she leads walks and training sessions as needed.
From dancer to beauty queen
For Maria Beale Fletcher, who joined the Rockettes at age 18 in 1960 and later became Miss America in 1962, regular workouts on her mini-trampoline last 45 minutes to an hour. She does Pilates for 20 minutes three times per week. On weekends, she hikes mountain trails.
"If I'm at the seashore, I walk the beach," says Fletcher, 68, of Las Vegas, who writes poetry. "Counting my blessings with each step I take — reflecting on the inspirational thoughts that bubble up — my soul is restored."
A passion for movement began when she was a toddler on stage. Her parents danced internationally: USO, vaudeville and nightclubs. On a trip to New York from Asheville, N.C., she marveled at the Rockettes she saw as a teenager. "Oh my golly, Daddy," she exclaimed. "I want to do that."
Fletcher finished high school in three years so she could audition for the Rockettes. She won the Miss Asheville pageant and boarded a train to New York, planning to spend the crown's $500 scholarship on dance lessons.
Several weeks later, she was hired as a Rockette replacement and later successfully re-auditioned to land a permanent spot. Fletcher stayed for seven months before seeking the Miss America crown.
Fletcher has supported a nonprofit network for children's hospitals, animal activist groups and a North Carolina music boarding school. Through e-mails and phone calls, she stays in touch with fellow Rockettes.
Grantham sums up the bond: "Away from home, we grew up together. We went on our first dates together, bought our first clothes on our own and danced on the great stage. … That was the most rarefied experience, and it made us true sister Rockettes forever."
Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.