Dancing has been in 27-year-old Mara Ranson’s DNA for a long time. She grew up training at Ewing’s Body Language Dance Center, studied dance at the University of the Arts and performed in musicals at regional theaters across the country.
This year, though, Ranson is taking on a new challenge: dancing as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. She is part of the annual Christmas Spectacular show.
Ranson auditioned in April of this year. On Aug. 8, after getting out of the subway with groceries in her arms, she got a phone call.
“I saw I was getting a call and so I put my bags down on the sidewalk,” she says. “They told me I got it, and of course, I started crying. After that, I hung up and called my mom and started crying all over again. That day is a memory I will always have.”
Three months later, she performed in her first show. She feels joining the Rockettes this year is particularly special, too. “There are 13 new girls this year: There hasn’t been that many new Rockettes in a long time,” she said. “We had a boot camp before the actual rehearsals and then, Oct. 1 and until the show opened, we rehearsed six hours a day, six days a week.”
For those who are familiar with the legendary Christmas Spectacular Show starring the Rockettes that has been performed at Radio City Music Hall since 1932 (the Rockettes dance troupe was founded in 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri), one of the most visually thrilling dance numbers is the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, where the Rockettes, dressed as toy wooden soldiers, form a line and then, one by one, fall down on each other in perfect precision.
“Everyone has to be on their ‘A’ game for that number: It is the ultimate trust fall,” Ranson says. “The wooden soldiers segment is definitely the number that personifies the Rockettes’ dedication to teamwork, and the idea that working better together can help you form something bigger than individually.”
As far as the intensity of the number is concerned: “It takes a hyper-focus, a lot of core control and full body engagement. Even while we are walking in the number, we can’t let our knees bend or shoulders move because we are made of wood. You have to be completely engaged the entire time, and then, when someone starts falling backwards on you, you really have to give them the physical support, engage your whole back and legs and arms. It’s pretty much like being in a plank the entire time.”
Ranson knew she wanted to end up as a Rockette. “Growing up, I had teachers who had been Rockettes, and they all said I should pursue it. Experiencing the intensives made me think, ‘yes, they were absolutely right.’ So, from there, in-between other performing contracts, I would audition.” Her tenacity paid off. “Finally, after eight times auditioning, this year, I got selected!
After graduating from Ewing High School, Ranson went to The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, performing in musicals and receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz Dance Performance. After that, it was cruise ship contracts that took her dancing literally around the world. She also spent time doing musicals at regional theaters, as well as spending a week in the summers, training at the Radio City Rockettes Summer Intensives.
“The summer intensive is a week-long program you have to audition for, available to girls ages 15 and up. [You also need a minimum of five years training in tap, jazz and ballet.],” Ranson says. “You do a little jazz combo with the famous eye-high kick; if you get selected, you come in and get put into two different lines, and stay with that specific line throughout the week, learning the dances together, doing everything from a jazz dance with kicks at the end, to tap dance, and the famous Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. At the end of the week, you do a showcase performance that your friends and family can come see.”
She says she vividly remembers the first show on Nov. 8. “My two roommates (Ranson shares an apartment in Manhattan with two other women) were in the audience, and I remember taking in the view of the massive hall and hearing the cheers from the crowd. Our finale number is called ‘Christmas Lights.’ It’s a very fast and technical number, with some really lovely choreography. I remember just tearing up during it on that first night.”
When asked what her personal favorite number is in the show, Ranson thought a moment and then said, “I think our ‘New York at Christmas’ number is probably my favorite. It has become very iconic and popular, and features a real double-decker bus onstage that moves. Plus, it is a lot of red and green, very festive, and in it we travel all over Manhattan, from Radio City to Times Square, Central Park. And then with that there is a final kick and fireworks are going off. It’s a lot of fun!”
Going home to Ewing after becoming a Rockette has been a lot of fun as well—her Ewing community has not let her down.
“My parents have pretty much lived in Ewing their whole lives. Everyone has been so supportive: the outpouring of love after getting the call that I got in was—and is still, so great—and so many people telling me they are coming to see the show.”
Her final words? “I’d just like to say the show is running through Jan. 5 and you should definitely come! There is another Ewing native (Taylor Shimko) in the show too, so come an hour early, when you can get some cookies and merchandise. It’s so worth it.”