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Point Park University gives dancers leg up to fame with The Rockettes

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 6:35 p.m.
Point Park University junior Meghan Manning warms up in a jazz dance class Tuesday, December 4, 2012. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Point Park University junior Meghan Manning warms up in a jazz dance class Tuesday, December 4, 2012. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Point Park University junior Meghan Manning warms up in a jazz dance class Tuesday, December 4, 2012. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Point Park University junior Meghan Manning warms up in a jazz dance class Tuesday, December 4, 2012. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

Some colleges build reputations for producing engineers, scientists or even National Football League linebackers.

Downtown-based Point Park University has a graduate pipeline to Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. The university is among the top colleges to propel dance graduates into The Rockettes, a precision dance company known for its chorus line of high leg kicks, daily Christmas season shows and performances in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Former Rockette Eileen Grace, a 1981 Point Park graduate, said rumor has it the university graduates more Rockettes than any school.

“We do try to keep track. I can't talk to any specific year, but I do know there are many years when we've had more Rockettes from Point Park than any other university,” said Grace, who became a choreographer for the Rockettes.

Susan Stowe, chairman of Point Park's Dance Department, said it's hard to keep a running tally of Rockettes from the university because, even though many perform year after year, they typically work on short contracts with the company and take other work.

“But I think it's fair to say we are one of the top schools for them,” Stowe said. “And it does prepare you for anything dance-related. If you can maintain the stamina and keep that schedule, you're prepared for anything.”

Grace, a mother of 3-year-old twins, commutes from North Huntingdon to New York City for her work. She directed touring productions of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and now is artistic director of the Rockette Summer Intensive program.

Dancers who make the cut have a lot in common with college athletes who turn pro. Athleticism and strength are musts for Rockettes, Grace said, as are persistence, determination and dreaming big — all qualities she said Point Park nurtured in her.

Like Grace, a Murrysville native who set her sights on becoming a Rockette as a child, Meghan Manning remembers when she caught the bug.

“I've been dancing since I was 3 years old. I always watched for them in the Macy's parade, and then I saw them in Pittsburgh when I was 12 or 13,” said Manning, 20, a Point Park junior from Peters. “When I was younger, every Thanksgiving after I watched the Rockettes I'd have my parents measure me on the wall. I really wanted to get to 5-foot-6 so I could dance with them.”

Height is as critical as stamina and dance skill for Rockettes, who must be between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-10½. Choreographers create the illusion of uniform height by placing the tallest dancers at the center of the line and progressively shorter dancers toward the ends.

At any given time, Grace said, about 150 dancers are under contract with The Rockettes. In addition to the New York troupe, the company has one in Nashville and a third on tour with the Christmas show through St. Louis, Dallas and Chicago.

“Every year is different in terms of how many new Rockettes are able to get in,” Grace said. “Most Rockettes who get in continue with it because they love the job.”

The dancers begin grueling rehearsals for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in late September: Seven hours a day, six days a week. The hours increase as opening night approaches. In addition to the five daily shows, Rockettes make guest appearances during the season. This year's 90-minute Christmas revue began Nov. 9 and will run through Dec. 30.

“I remember in New York one year, I had four weeks when I didn't have a day off. But it was a dream,” Grace said.

Manning loves that alums who danced with The Rockettes occasionally return to take classes at Point Park.

As she prepared for a jazz class in a studio at Point Park's George Rowland White Performance Center, Manning shared her strategy: Try and try again.

“I've been to every (Rockette) audition since I was 18. The past two years I've made it all the way to the final round on the second day. They measure you, ask you how you want your name in the program and they say they'll call you back,” she said. “The first audition I didn't make it through any of the cuts, and the next one, I made it through a few cuts.

“Point Park has helped me so much, and I can see it in each audition when I go back.”

Kiesha Lalama, an associate professor of dance at Point Park, is confident Manning soon will secure her place in the line.

“You can just see it in her,” Lalama said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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