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Local dancer trains with renowned Rockettes

Emma Ellefson, 18, of Park Rapids, trained with the famed Rockettes in New York City earlier this month.

Some 2,000 dancers from across the U.S. auditioned for the Rockettes summer intensive dance program.

Emma Ellefson, an 18-year-old aspiring dancer from Park Rapids, was one of 480 women accepted.

She traveled to New York City to train with the iconic dance company from July 31 through Aug. 5 – one of eight week-long sessions offered by the Rockettes.

A world-famous dance company, the Rockettes are legendary for their precision and eye-high kicks.

According to their website (rockettes.com), their distinctive style transcends a multitude of dance disciplines, including jazz, tap, musical theater, lyrical and the famed kick line.

Last spring, Emma had nearly decided to not send in her audition tape.

She found out about the summer program one week before its deadline.

To be considered for the Rockettes intensive program, dancers must be at least 14 years of age with a minimum of five years training in tap, jazz and ballet. They also had to audition at one of the casting calls held in several major U.S. cities — or submit a video audition. 

Gleaning ideas from audition tapes posted on YouTube, Emma’s mom, Anne, filmed her on a smartphone. They edited the footage down to two minutes or less.

“I was debating sending it in. I thought, ‘This isn’t good enough. This is tragic,’” Emma said.

“I was just humoring her,” Anne said.

Neither expected anything to come of it.

First, Emma was placed on a “waiting list,” then later confirmed.

“I was thrilled,” Emma said.

“She was freaking out,” says her mom.

Emma was self-taught, her love of Irish-style beginning at the age of 8 after watching “Riverdance.” (“Be careful what you show your kids,” quips Anne.)

She began formal training at the Northern Lights Dance Academy three years ago. Emma credits her dance instructors for preparing her so well.

The poised, 5’ 9” dancer trained with the Rockettes themselves and American contemporary choreographer Mia Michels in New York City. Classes were held in the Rockettes’ rehearsal space at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle.

Emma’s parents joined The Big Apple adventure. Through Airbnb.com, they opted to rent a small apartment about four miles from the class.

“I wanted to stay in an apartment to get a feel for living in New York City,” Emma explained.

“My husband and I did all the touristy stuff,” said Anne. “So we were forced out of our comfort zone. But we got a feel for the sense and culture of New York City. It’s very sensory overload.”

“The first day was really stressful,” Emma admits.

“We definitely found out how lucky we are,” Anne said.

Emma met dancers who had auditioned three times before they were finally accepted into the competitive program. Some of the participants were NFL cheerleaders. Some were from New Zealand or England. Many were from New York City.

The program included seminars about nutrition, avoiding injury, audition tips and the history of the 85-year-old dance company. They also enjoyed an hour-long visit with the Rockettes.

“As fun as it is, you are there to work,” Emma said.

The rigorous training – eight hours daily — culminated in a student showcase at the end of the week. The public performance was held at New York University.

Emma had to quickly memorize choreography, while dancing in two-inch heels.

“It’s a really professional environment, for sure,” Emma said. “It was a supportive, most encouraging environment.”

“It felt like a sisterhood,” agreed Anne.

As an alumni, Emma can return to the summer program every year “for the rest of my life,” if she wishes.

Naturally, Emma and her parents attended the Rockettes’ Summer Spectacular, performed at Radio City Music Hall.

Their most popular show, the Christmas Spectacular, is seen by more than 1 million people annually.

There are 36 Rockettes on stage at every performance. Dancers must stand between 5’ 6” and 5’ 10.5” tall.

“It is so 1950s classic fun. We had the chills. It was amazing,” Anne said.

“Most people don’t know you have to sing as well as dance. I think it’s one of the most difficult jobs,” Emma said.

Watching the show finale, Emma determined she had to do that same dance on that stage.

When Anne was a little girl, she and her seven sisters would pretend to be the famed dance company.

“I was going to be a Rockette, well, in my mind,” Anne recalled. “I never told Emma that. When she told me she was going to be a Rockette, I said, ‘What?!’ It was a really surreal situation.”

Entering its fourteenth season, the summer dance intensive has produced more than 60 Rockettes.

Emma hopes to become the next one. She’ll return to New York City in January 2017 and audition for a place in the kick line.

Typically, 500 dancers audition for the Rockettes. Five will make the cut.

“I feel it’ll just be another learning experience,” Emma says.

This fall, in preparation, she’ll be traveling across the country for precision jazz dance classes.

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