Music City may be better known for two-stepping than high kicks, but don’t tell that to brand-new resident Jenelle Engleson, a Radio City Rockette who now calls Nashville home.
After a decade with the Rockettes, and six of those years on the road, Jenelle was looking for a place to put down roots. She’d been here every Christmas season for the past three years during the Rockettes’ residency at the Grand Ole Opry House, and decided that Nashville was the place for her.
“It’s a good fit for me,” she says. “I like the people, the community, the culture … the vibrancy of Nashville. I really wanted to try something new, and something very different from New York, and so far it has been amazing!”
In addition to her time at Radio City, Jenelle has toured the country in such well-known productions as “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Grease” and “42nd Street.” She also works as a choreographer and dance-competition judge. She’ll keep doing all that from her Nashville base, where the Rockettes have performed in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for 13 seasons.
“I’m here when the Christmas show is running, which is about two months, and I love being home for Christmas,” she says. “But I’ll still be doing a lot of traveling the rest of the year.”
For instance, last year she journeyed to Park City, Utah, for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to see the sights and teach some lucky filmgoers Rockettes choreography during their Free Fail Day, a series of events that embraces failure as essential to the creative process.
High kicks? On the level
All told, it’s a glamorous life, but one that’s also filled with hard work. The Maryland native became a Rockette at 17, following a two-day audition process that was rigorous. She immediately began to prepare for the work that lay ahead.
“A lot of people just see us during the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Christmas parades in New York, and those are so much fun to do,” Jenelle says. “And they love the kick line. They love that precision, but I can tell you it’s one of the hardest things for us to do. We work on the timing and precision, but also on the different levels. We kick waist high, and also eye high, and we do almost 300 kicks in a show so it’s a lot of core work.”
So much so, in fact, that the ladies deal with their share of blisters during a 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily rehearsal schedule leading up to the holiday shows, not to mention post-training treatments that would be right at home in an NFL locker room.
“We are in an ice bath from the waist down afterward,” Jenelle explains. “It’s freezing cold, but it’s amazing for our muscles and breaks up all the lactic acid that builds up. We’re working out, maybe not in the same way an athlete does, but just as much and just as intensely.”
So you wanna be a Rockette?
Jenelle also spends a lot of time meeting the public, many of whom are little girls who want to grow up and be just like her. And many of them can, she says, but there are a few ground rules.
“You have to be 18 years old, and you have to be between 5’6” and 5’10” tall,” she says. “You have to be proficient in ballet, tap and jazz, and you have to be able to learn not just the choreography, but also the stagecraft of the shows. You’ve also got to be able to change costumes really fast — sometimes in as little as 90 seconds — because we have eight costume changes in a show and sometimes you can’t even grab a quick drink of water.”
Even with all that Jenelle says that she counts herself blessed to have become a Rockette, and even more so now that she plays nightly to a hometown crowd.
“The Opry House is very different from Radio City Music Hall, but they both have wonderful energy and history,” she says. “The show is a family tradition, and it’s a real honor to be dancing on that stage where so many legends have performed. I’m very lucky and honored to be able to take that stage.”
And once 2015 rolls around, her tap shoes will hardly be hung up to get dusty.
“Being a Rockette is a lifestyle and is never done, of course,” she says. “Throughout the year I am busy doing other Rockettes events, such as performing on the Norwegian Breakaway Cruise Ship. The Rockettes are the proud godmothers of this one-and-only ship that celebrates the larger-than-life personality of New York City.”
She’ll also teach in Nashville at a local dance studio, and stay in touch with her Los Angeles agents so she can pick up film and television work when it’s available. And for when those hoofing days are done (and well before), she’s also studying to be a sommelier.
“I am very excited to start a career in the world of wine here in a city that is so up and coming and progressive in the food and wine culture,” she says. “My life is very full, and I feel so lucky to be able to do what I love and call it a job.”