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Former Rockettes get kick out of holiday show

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@miamiherald.com

Rockette Precision dancing really is Rockette science.

''We all kick eye high,'' said Marilyn Sena Arkin of Miami Shores, left, who danced with the famed Radio City Rockettes from 1964 to '72. ``We had certain kicks: waist high, chest high, eye high and over the head.''

For 75 years, hundreds of women in New York have lined up on Radio City Music Hall's 100-foot stage, focused on the same spot in the distance and then kicked to that height, Arkin said.

That's still how the Rockettes do it. Sixteen of today's Rockettes are in South Florida through Dec. 2, dancing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

''It gives you goose bumps. The Christmas show is amazing,'' said Arkin, one of 37 Rockette Alumnae club members now living in Florida.

Dancing at Radio City changed their lives, say Arkin and another former Rockette, Helene Grethlein Smith of Plantation.

''It was wonderful. I made some lifelong friends. We were really a community,'' said Smith, a 1966 Stranahan High grad who moved from Fort Lauderdale to New York at age 19. She danced with the troupe in New York from 1968 to '71 and in Las Vegas in 1976.

''I had auditioned for the Music Hall,'' said Smith, 59, now a florist at Pink Pussycat Flower Shop in Plantation. ``I auditioned in May. An opening came up in January. The first of January I moved to New York. No winter clothes. But it was fun. I learned a lot in a hurry, including how to keep warm.''

Smith recalls her opening night in 1968: ``Wow, it was exhilarating. We had rehearsed on the stage but when the curtain went up and the lights hit and you saw 6,500 people out there, it was a rush.''

At Radio City, she fell for Doug Smith, a former University of Miami jazz musician she knew from junior high. ''I went to New York to meet the boy next door,'' she said.

Actually, Doug Smith fell for her -- 12 feet down the Music Hall's stage elevator shaft. Helene Smith and her fellow dancers were in place below on the elevator platform, ready to be lifted to stage level.

Doug Smith broke his back in four places. ''I organized the girls to go and visit him,'' Helene Smith said. ''It was an interesting beginning,'' she said of their romance.

The Smiths have been married 36 years and have three grown children. Helene retired from the Rockettes, they returned to Florida and she had twin boys in 1978.

Among Helene Smith's most vivid memories: the Christmas Spectacular.

''The Nativity scene. We had live animals on stage,'' she said. 'We shared the stage area. What was normally our quick-change area became the animals' room. We had a donkey and sheep and camels. That was fun sharing the winter indoors with all those animals.''

Brooklyn-born Marilyn Arkin became a Rockette at 17. She vividly recalls the Nativity scene.

''I was bitten by the camel,'' she said. ``Sadie the camel. I was bitten by the donkey. And I was bitten by sheep. They knew me in the emergency at Roosevelt Hospital in New York.''

Arkin, 61, jokes that her experiences with the four-legged cast members have served her well in her current capacity as office manager for Yao Animal Hospital in Miami.

During her Radio City run, other ''crazy things'' also happened to her, she said.

'One time my tap shoe flew into the tuba. I did the whole routine with one shoe. You know, `The show must go on.' That's the way it is.''

Arkin later married a man from Miami and moved to South Florida. After retiring from the Rockettes, she taught dance at several Miami-area schools.

Her daughter, Lauren, wanted to be a Rockette, but at 5-feet, 2-inches she is too short. Rockettes must be between 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 10 ½ inches tall.

To make all the dancers seem the same height, the troupe resorts to a bit of trickery.

''The line would start with the tallest girl in the center. By height, they would go down the line where the shortest girl was at the end,'' Smith said. ``It gives the illusion of everyone being the same height.''

The Rockettes are synonymous with New York's ''Showplace of the Nation,'' Radio City Music Hall, which opened in 1932. (The troupe actually dates back to 1925 and

the oldest living ex-Rockette is 100, according to Alumnae Corresponding Secretary Patty DeCarlo Grantham.)

Arkin plans to see the Christmas show in Fort Lauderdale. She always has the same reaction to seeing her dancing past re-created on stage:

''I get very nostalgic,'' she said. ``I fill up with tears and my feet don't stop moving.''

Photo by Carl Juste. More photos, click here.

IF YOU GO

What: Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale

When: Through Dec. 2

Cost: $29 to $74

Info: 954-462-0222, www.browardcenter.org, or www.ticketmaster.com      


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