BOSTON – Rhapsody Stiggers has been dancing since she was 2, but the 20-year-old college junior has never taken a dance class quite as challenging as the one she’s in now.
She is one of 38 students at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee enrolled in the first for-credit college dance class taught by the Radio City Rockettes, the precision dance team famous for its annual high-kicking “Christmas Spectacular,” seen by more than 69 million people since 1933.
The class, taught by a current Rockette, focuses on their meticulously precise technique, based on tap, ballet and jazz, in which the dancers move and kick in perfect synchronicity. The course also teaches strength training, choreography and lessons that can be applied to pretty much any dance genre.
“What’s unique about this class is the level of technicality,” said Stiggers, originally from St. Paul, Minnesota. She said she’s skilled in ballet, modern, jazz, salsa, West African and improvisation, but “no other style of dance really emphasizes the precision of every single body part.”
“Like the Rockettes, we have to know exactly where our eye is, or where they’re pointing, or where the fingers are pointing, or how extended they are. So in that sense it is more difficult than other styles that I have done in the past,” she said.
It’s one of the most popular dance classes this semester at the performing arts school founded in 1867. Slots filled up fast and though enrollment was originally capped at 30, there were 38 students ultimately allowed in, said Mila Thigpen, chair of dance at the conservatory.
Their instructor is Amarisa LeBar, who has been a Rockette for about five years. LeBar, 25, of Iselin, New Jersey, started teaching at her mother’s dance studio at 16, but finds sharing the Rockettes’ style with college students definitely more intense.
“Teaching on a Rockette level is completely different and is a lot more difficult to do because we really tune into the perfection of our movement,” LeBar said.
The students also get a sense of the teamwork Rockettes develop while rehearsing six hours per day, six days a week.
“So to be a Rockette, first off you have to have a love of wanting to work together as a team,” said Julie Branam, director and choreographer of the “Christmas Spectacular.” She started as a dancer 26 years ago.
“Sometimes it can be very tedious,” Branam said. “We’re checking what 36 people do in that line over and over again, to say ‘Is you’re head at the same angle? Is you arm at the same height?’ So it’s the willingness of wanting to work as one to make the effort of the 36 look beautiful.”
The college-level class is an extension of the Rockettes’ dancer development program, which includes invitation-only summer training for promising dancers. The partnership is a natural, Thigpen said.
“We have very similar core values,” she said. “Both the Rockettes and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee have a very long history, and as much as we have to celebrate in our history, we also are both thinking about how we evolve and push both dance education and the profession of dance.”
Stiggers has been so inspired that she may audition for the Rockettes someday.
“It’s a just fun thing to strive for,” she said. “If I don’t apply or get in, it’s still useful knowledge that I’ve learned that can carry on into the rest of my career.”
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