Modern Life: Behind the Scenes at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Fancy footwork comes in handy for Rockette mom Teneise Mitchell Ellis as she high-kicks her way through 16 shows a week.
Teneise Mitchell Ellis, 34, Radio City Rockette; Jordan, 3; and Hassan Ellis, 37, software developer. “Being a part of the Christmas Spectacular is nothing short of amazing. No matter how many performances I do in a day, each one feels brand-new.” —Teneise
Come for the dancing, stay for the camaraderie: That should be Teneise Mitchell Ellis’ motto. One of the 80 high-stepping Radio City Rockettes, the Chesapeake, VA native has been dancing since she was able to stand on her own two feet. “At age 5 I began training in ballet, tap and jazz. I fell in love the moment I stepped into the studio.” Like many young girls, Teneise first saw the Rockettes perform on TV during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She admired their beauty, strength, athleticism and precision.
So, when she grew up, she went for it—along with hundreds of other women. “The audition was a very rigorous process and I was nervous, to say the least! You have to be proficient in ballet, jazz and tap, at least 18 years old and between 5'6" and 5'10 ½",” she recalls. “There were hundreds of girls lined up for the audition, which included three different dance combinations and a final kick line. They made cuts after each round. After making it through the first day and the second day of callbacks, I had to wait about a month to hear from them.” She says it was the longest month of her life, but once she received that phone call, it was worth the wait. “Dancing as a Rockette in the Christmas Spectacular has always been a dream of mine, and it’s an incredible honor to be part of such an iconic staple of New York City.”
What she’s loved most about being a Rockette (since 2010) is the camaraderie among the dancers—she calls the troupe a sisterhood. “There’s something truly special about 36 women in a line, all coming together to create magic. I have made some of my closest friendships here.” Even when she’s off-duty, you might find her with her posse. “Most of my friends are professional dancers, and all the Rockettes are very close. Believe it or not, when we’re not working, it’s not unusual to find us out and about, dancing the night away!”
“When Teneise performs, her joy and excitement radiate from the stage—it’s really infectious.” —Hassan
When Teneise isn’t kicking up her heels, she loves spending time with her family. She says that Hassan, her husband of nine years, has always been open and supportive of her dreams, all while following his own. She adds that he is “by far the most intelligent man I know, and the gentlest father our daughter could ever ask for.” Of Teneise, Hassan says that her years of dedication and the hard work she puts into her craft are admirable. He loves her approach to life and, of course, they both love being parents to their daughter, Jordan.
But she admits that being a mother and a Radio City Rockette is something she never imagined she could do. “It certainly would be much more difficult without the support of my husband. At work I have to be physically strong, mentally prepared, focused and performance-ready. At home I try to be patient, loving, a teacher and a role model,” Teneise says. Combining all these elements of her life certainly has its challenges, but she feels that those challenges come with some very big rewards. “I have grown tremendously, and I am able to show Jordan that she can have love, family and a career.”
Rehearsals for the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes start in the beginning of October, and the show opens in early November. They have only about six weeks to perfect the show, rehearsing for a grueling six hours a day, six days a week. Teneise says she is thankful that they also have an amazing athletic training team to help them stay strong and injury-free throughout the rehearsal process. “It requires hard work, dedication and, most of all, teamwork to make the show as incredible as it is,” she explains. “Once we open, we perform in up to four 90-minute shows each day.”
On December 25th, you’ll find her onstage, ready to go. “New York City and the show have become my tradition. As long as I’m surrounded by my loved ones during the holiday season, my heart is full.”
“Being Jordan’s mother makes me better at everything else I do, because I know my girl is always watching from the sidelines, learning and growing.” —Teneise
What’s your favorite part of the show?
My favorite number is “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” It’s been in the show since the Christmas Spectacular’s inception in 1933, and it truly highlights the Rockettes’ strength in precision dance.
Do you still get nervous before you perform?
I always get those butterflies in my stomach before hitting the stage. The Rockettes are known for being as close to perfection as it gets, and it's my job to be on my game every single time.
How many pairs of dance shoes do you go through each season?
We do eight costume changes in the Christmas Spectacular and with each one, there’s a shoe change as well. I typically use one pair of shoes for each number throughout the entire run of the show. For me, the more broken in the shoe is, the better it feels to dance in.
What kind of diet do you have to maintain?
While we’re in season, I perform up to 16 shows a week—which is a lot of cardio, so I don't have to maintain a special diet. The goal is just to stay healthy. “Everything in moderation” is my motto. With the amount of high-intensity performing we do, I need more food intake for fuel. I tend to eat foods that are high in protein, and I make sure to stay well hydrated.
What do you do in the off-season?
I’m a full-time mommy! I work so hard and so many hours that when I have time off, I want to spend it with my family. I also take dance class and Bikram yoga to stay in shape while I’m not performing every day.
What would you do if you weren’t dancing?
I’d be teaching dance. This is my passion, and there's no getting around it. Sharing my experiences and helping shape the next generation of dancers would be very fulfilling.
How did you meet Hassan?
In January 2008, I met my husband on eharmony.com. Back then, online dating was not as popular as it is now, so I was a little unsure about it. However, there was something about him that made me dive in headfirst and nine months later, on the day after my birthday, we had a secret wedding with only our parents in attendance. To this day, only a few people know about that, but the secret is out now! We later had a beautiful ceremony with all our friends and family in September 2009.
Do you two like to go dancing for fun, or does it feel like work?
To me, dancing never feels like work. I love to dance regardless if it's onstage or out in a social setting. But dancing is probably the last thing on my husband's list of fun things to do! He appreciates my love for dance—it's just not his thing.
Originally published in the Family Circle December 2017 edition.