Life in the Kickline: A Rockette’s Story
As the days grow shorter, a California native and observant Jew named Rhonda Kaufman Malkin has been spending her evenings up to her eyeballs in ear-high kicks. But it’s not for Sukkot that she’s been hoofing it up, it’s her job — and her passion.
Malkin, 25, is a Rockette, and audiences who missed her Radio City Music Hall run in “Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way” can catch her in all her high-heeled glory at the show’s stops throughout the world or during the Christmas show’s three-month run in Detroit that kicks off in November.
Like many artists, Malkin cannot recall a time when she was not subject to the muse. “I always loved just dancing around the house, ever since I [could] walk,” she said. And she’s not exaggerating. By age 4, she was taking dance lessons. “When I was 16, I started winning scholarships. When I was 18, I got an agent. And when the braces came off, I got head shots,” she said.
Malkin was living in Los Angeles when she first saw the Radio City dancers perform in 1999, and she knew she wanted to be dancing alongside them. It took two years of auditioning, but she eventually made the cut. “I had never gone to an audition that was as intense as the Rockette audition,” she told the Forward.
The Rockettes have been high-kicking it home since 1925 and appeared at Radio City’s opening night in 1932. Since then, their calling card has become the popular annual “Christmas Spectacular,” though some know the dancers best for their scene in the movie “Annie.”
Since joining the kickline, Malkin has spent a lot of time on the road, she said, which has given her the opportunity to experience and explore Jewish communities around the country. In Indianapolis, for example, she was surprised to find only one Orthodox synagogue.
While Radio City Productions “will put us up” in hotels during tours, she said, she prefers to stay at the homes of her co-religionists when she’s on the road. “Usually [I have] contacts with someone who knows someone who lives in the city I’m in… so I’ll get to go for Friday-night dinner.”
In New York, as well, Malkin is a visitor. She grew up in Irvine, Calif., and moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where she majored in sociology. She has lived in L.A. ever since. While in New York for rehearsals and performances, she has sought out traditionally Jewish enclaves in Boro Park, Flatbush, Flushing, Washington Heights and Westchester. In preparation for her first show with the Rockettes two years ago, she “wanted to come early,” which happened to coincide with the holiday of Sukkot. “I stayed with a chasidic family,” she said. “I had a really amazing time.… I had never been with a family that spoke only Yiddish to each other.” It was here that she first realized the confusion her chosen profession often elicits from the Jewish community.
That family was unfamiliar with the Rockettes — as most she has stayed with since have been. “A lot of them really don’t know where Radio City Music Hall is,” she said. “I think it’s just their way of protecting themselves from the outside world.” Many of her hosts have trouble understanding the demands involved in being a dancer. “They thought that I would share more of the holiday with the family,” Malkin said of the chasidic family.
While Malkin often finds herself on tour searching to connect with Jewish communities, she also finds herself apart from them in some ways. “I really consider myself a woman who lives in two different worlds… my show-business world and my religious world.”
“It’s pretty difficult to mix the two because they’re so contradictory,” she added. Her religious observance reflects this. While she won’t skip a Saturday rehearsal, she does make sure she walks. “If I get the Saturday off, then I do Shabbes,” she said, adding, “If I have to rehearse or perform, I do a half-Shabbes,” eating a Sabbath meal on Friday night and squeezing whichever observances she can into her busy schedule.
The Rockettes “don’t allow you to miss a day for religious observance.” Malkin said. This year for the High Holy Days, she “did the second day of Rosh Hashana, not the first,” she said; even Yom Kippur found her at the theater, where, she said, “I did fast all day, and I did as much praying as I could.”
Malkin makes a point of mentioning that the Rockettes are a religiously diverse entourage. “I don’t know how it was back in the day,” she said, “but nowadays… there are Rockettes who are Muslim, Christian, Catholic and Mormon.” Malkin said she thinks her presence has given her colleagues a greater knowledge of Judaism, beginning with her kosher eating habits. “I usually have to do things with my food,” she said, adding that her diet serves as a point of departure for more in-depth conversations about Judaism. As for the showgirl-esque outfits that come with her job, Malkin said: “Basically, most dance companies wear less clothing than the Rockettes wear — we’re fairly modest dancers. We show our legs, but everything else is covered, which is very reassuring.”
Malkin, who was raised Reform and has “become more traditional in recent years” — she describes herself as “Modern Orthodox” — is by no means the only Jew among the cast and crew. On Chanukah, Malkin will announce when it’s time to light the menorah. Then she will “drag people into the manager’s office” to light the menorah, she said. Lighting the candles makes “everyone feel a little more like a family.” This, she said, is “something to do when you have so much Christmas around you.”
Malkin, who got married three months ago, doesn’t get to spend much time with her new husband. This year alone she’ll perform in nearly 75 shows, many of them in New York. He spent the High Holy Days with her in the Big Apple.
While rehearsing for the Sinatra show in New York, Malkin has been living on Grand Street, right in the heart of the historic Lower East Side Jewish community. “I really like [it]…. I’ve heard of it so many times,” she said of the area. Few of the neighborhood’s Jews, though, are likely to imagine that a Radio City Rockette is sitting right next to them in synagogue.
Steven I. Weiss is a blogger (http://protocols.blogspot.com) living in New York City.