Former Rockette still kicking at 89

October 5, 2008 10:01:52 AM PDT
Their legs aren't really nine feet long, but it sure seems that way. Thirty-two Rockettes - yes, those leggy dancers of Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular fame - were all swinging arms and kicking gams when Louise Neistat, 89 and a former Rockette, stopped in to rehearsals at Sonalyst Studios in Waterford.

Neistat, who still teaches tap dance at her home in New London, was in awe as she watched the precision dancers line up in front of a wall of mirrors and repeat over and over again the same steps for two lines of one musical number. Black short shorts or black miniskirts, tanktops, and flesh-tone high-heel shoes, were the practice uniform of choice.

"I brought my shoes, just in case," said Neistat as she stood off to the side and observed. "I wish I could get up there with them ... but I don't think I'd look too good."

She was invited to the closed rehearsals to meet the "newer" Rockettes, after a stage manager read about her former Rockette days in a story in The Day.

"We thought it would be a nice thing to invite her to come see what we're doing with the show," said Gary Memi, director of touring production-arenas. "It's always nice for a new Rockette to meet a Rockette who was doing the show so long ago."

Neistat watched as Linda Haberman, director and choreographer of the arena production of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, led the rehearsal.

"Elbows forward," she commanded. "Where are your elbows?"

"They are very good," Neistat whispered loudly. She added that she probably could do some of the moves if she had time to practice.

When the dancers broke for lunch, they gathered around Neistat for a brief introduction, towering over her. She said she couldn't be a Rockette today, because she's now too short.

"I wish I could remember a lot of stories," she said, as the women formed a half circle. "We started at the Roxie Theater, do you know the Roxie Theater?"

They nodded.

"It was very exciting," she continued. "But I was so young. I didn't really appreciate it at the time."

"I like your earrings," some commented, as they were whisked away for their lunch. Neistat was wearing her signature "5-6-7-8" diamond earrings. One returned for a picture.

Neistat performed with the Rockettes in 1942, entertaining servicemen at military bases throughout the United States. She dropped out a year later when the troupe shipped out for Europe to entertain servicemen abroad. Her mother begged her not to go. She stayed in New York and taught dance.

After she married, had children and moved to New London in 1962, she picked up her shoes again and began offering tap lessons from her third-floor studio. She's been going strong for 46 years.

The company asked her to stay for the afternoon and will record her memories for an in-house video tape. She brought with her old black and white photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings. One showed a line up of the Rockettes holding large balls that she said they used to dance on.

"Our feet would be going a mile a minute," she said.

The Rockettes are in the area until Oct. 13, rehearsing at Sonalyst for the 76th annual Christmas Spectacular, which will go on the road Nov. 7 playing at large-scale venues in 18 cities.

The show includes a cast of 77, including 32 Rockettes. They travel with two camels, a donkey and four sheep, in 30 trucks and 16 buses.

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