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Rocking the Rockettes

Jules Becker | 12/14/2010, 9:29 a.m.
Change came slow to the legendary dance line, but Nirine S. Brown is rolling nowThe world-famous Radio...
The world-famous Radio City Rockette kickline has become more diverse since its inception. Madison Square Garden Entertainment

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The world-famous Radio City Rockette kickline has become more diverse since its inception.

Change came slow to the legendary dance line, but Nirine S. Brown is rolling now

Times have really changed for the Rockettes. For more than half a century (1932-1987 and 1925-1932 as the Missouri Rockettes), there were no African Americans in the famous Radio City Music Hall dance troupe.

The standard discriminatory response of the company management was that a black dancer would distract from the consistent look of the precision line. Even in 1987, an African American woman was chosen to be on call as an alternate. It was only in 1988 that a black dancer named Jennifer Jones performed in the famous line, in fact in a special half-time performance at the 22nd Super Bowl.

Things have improved so dramatically that black Rockette Nirine S. Brown has actually begun her sixth season with the troupe. Now, the New York native is performing in the 18-dancer touring line of the Rockettes at the Citi Center for the Performing Arts.

The 24-year-old Brown recently told the Banner that she “found out about the Rockettes” while studying at the Alvin Ailey Dance Academy. If Ailey training allowed “more freedom,” it also proved “very hard.” She has also trained at Ballet Hispanico.     While in training, she studied a variety of dance forms ranging from jazz and tap to ballet and modern dance. At Ballet Hispanico, she noted, “they add their flair of flamenco.” At both vaunted schools, she trained in the kind of high kicking that is a Rockettes’ trademark.

Her early education was at the Talent Unlimited High School and the State University of New York at Purchase.  One of her major off-season gigs has been touring with singing star Shakira and performing at the FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Brown is not only appreciative of, but also very comfortable with the Rockettes style, which she termed “precise and hard.” “Everything is extremely detailed,” she added. “It’s one of those shows where you can tell if something is off.”

“The Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” she added, is “going to be the same show for those who saw it. But the line of the Rockettes will be new. There are no stars. It’s all about being in sync at all times.”

The relative Rockette veteran called her performances and the responsibilities of the show “an amazing job.” Rehearsals for the regular tour begin in October, and the line practices six days a week.

Brown is learning “all my technical studies,” she explained. She has worked steadily, as have all her fellow dancers, on such elements as eye-level kicks, the kick-line finale and the military drill formation. “I give them credit.”

Among the yearly highlights are the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and the “Living Nativity,” which features camels and other animals essential to the story. Probably the most famous routine, of course, is the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, in which the Rockettes fall backward like a slowly toppled row of dominoes.

This is Brown’s “first time in Boston,” though she admitted that she is enjoying the Hub so much that she is sure it will not be the last.