Keeping the Radio City Rockettes on their toes, with help from Westchester

October 22, 2019: The Radio City Rockettes rehearse for the Christmas Spectacular at the St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City.

October 22, 2019: The Radio City Rockettes rehearse for the Christmas Spectacular at the St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. (Photo: Carl Scheffel, Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos)

Written by Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy. Posted Nov. 26, 2019, Edited Nov. 29, 2019

On a Monday afternoon, just days before opening night, Emily King, 22, a Radio City Rockette, dropped by an office at Radio City Music Hall.

King, who is in her second season as one of the famed dancers, came to see Dr. Melody Hrubes, the new medical director for the Rockettes, and Elaine Winslow-Redmond, the director of athletic training, for a consultation.

“It just provides a lot of security for us as performers,” King said. “We know that if anything goes wrong, like they have our back and they are going to provide help where it’s necessary.”

King, who is from Michigan and has a bachelor’s degree in Commercial Dance from Pace University, is one of 80 Rockettes known for their signature eye-high kicks and a precision dance technique that requires both artistry and athleticism.

Hrubes and Winslow-Redmond make sure the Rockettes are in top shape as they ascend the Radio City Music Hall stage multiple times a day to perform the “Christmas Spectacular.”

While they range in height from 5-foot-6 to 5-10½, the dancers succeed in creating the illusion that they are kicking at the same height through a combination of formation (tallest woman in the center) and technique.

They perform up to 16 times a week and can kick up to 650 times a day. Each 90-minute performance requires 160 kicks in high heels. The unforgiving routine can put considerable strain on their bodies.

For Hrubes, that means preventing injuries before they happen.

“What is so interesting to me about dance is that it’s choreographed, so there’s a lot of biomechanical and overuse injuries that happen,” said Hrubes, who practices with Rothman Orthopedic Institute, which opened a location in Harrison last month and is the official provider of orthopedic services to the Rockettes.

“That’s why we’re so interested in how to prevent that, since they’re doing the same thing over and over again.”

A lot of what she sees with the Rockettes also applies to other athletes, said Hrubes, a specialist in sports medicine who has previously worked as a team physician for the United States Soccer Federation and with United States Gymnastics.

“A lot of young athletes aren’t taught to listen to their bodies; they think that if there’s no pain, there’s no gain. If I’m hurting, that means I’m just working hard enough,” said Hrubes, talking about injury prevention. “And actually pain is your body’s way of saying something is wrong. So learning the difference between soreness and pain is super valuable because then they could actually learn to listen to their bodies.”

She knows the drill

That philosophy dovetails with what Buchanan resident Winslow-Redmond has sought to do with the Rockettes since 2005.

A former Rockette who performed for 11 seasons from 1994-2005, Winslow-Redmond said she was frustrated when, in her first season, she sought treatment for a shin splint — a kind of stress fracture —  and found doctors who didn’t fully understand what she did.

“They would say things like, ‘There’s no hopping in tap dancing.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I don’t think they understand what I do if they don’t think I’m hopping while I’m tap dancing,’ ” she said. “They didn’t understand that I needed to stay in the show. I couldn’t like just take a few weeks off.”

She was eventually helped by an athletic trainer who taught Winslow-Redmond how to prevent injury through her next 10 seasons. And she learned firsthand how important it is to focus on recovery after a show.

“So I had great longevity and I was able to dance injury free for the rest of my seasons,” she said.

Winslow-Redmond said she was bothered by the fact that the Rockettes didn’t have an in-house trainer or doctor. So, while continuing to dance as a Rockette, Winslow-Redmond, who has a bachelor’s in dance, took advantage of a tuition assistance program available to Rockettes to transition to other careers.

She got master’s in physiology and nutrition at Columbia University and eventually became the Rockettes’ trainer in 2005.

As part of her thesis, she analyzed five years’ worth of Rockette injury reports and showed that the majority were preventable overuse injuries.

“Overall the choreography has gotten more difficult,” she said. “So as we’re challenging the Rockettes and they’re rising to a higher level, their injuries are decreasing. There’s been a 78% decrease in injury. So that’s the impact.”

Her advice for current and aspiring dancers?

“They should pair their dance training to incorporate a strength element so that they strengthen the muscles that tend to be weak on dancers.”

She also emphasizes recovery. “I push hard on recovery because I really understand the impact of many shows in one week,” she said. “Understanding the level of fatigue that I experienced and being able to teach them the necessary steps on how to recover and that pushing through is not always the way to go.”

For Rockette Emily King, working with Winslow-Redmond and Hrubes has been helpful. “Just in a preventative sense, the pre-screening is so helpful,” she said. “They give us exercises to help prevent injuries that are specific to us, like things that we are susceptible to, which is incredible.”

Preventing injury

Dr. Hrubes and Winslow-Redmond offered advice for athletes on preventing injury:

  • A dynamic warm up vs. static stretching helps prepare muscles for the power needed during high-intensity activity that occurs during practice, games or performances.
  • For any dancer or field athlete (soccer, lacrosse, field hockey), a combination of hamstring, gluteus medius and hip adductor strengthening is essential. These muscles work in combination to support balance and posture and improve power, speed and agility. They also are typically weaker in dancers due to overuse of turnout posture so they are needed to counteract the overdevelopment of the hip external rotators and flexors.
  • Recovery after a practice, game or show is vital, particularly with multiple shows per day, or games in a tournament setting. Strategies we use include adequate sleep, nutrition, and hydration (we recommend half your body weight in ounces plus one liter per day). Cool down can include ice submersion and foam rolling.

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