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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Art of Power: How Louis XIV Ruled France ... With Ballet

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By Gretchen Schmid

In 1692, a young French aristocrat visiting King Louis XIV’s royal court was asked if he knew how to dance. The aristocrat, who went by Montbron, replied with characteristic overconfidence, gloating enough to attract the attention of other courtiers. Rookie mistake. It wasn’t long before the room of nobles asked him to prove it.

It was a truth universally acknowledged that a man pining for a political career in 17th century France needed a dance teacher. The ability to dance was both a social nicety and a political necessity, the birthmark of an aristocratic upbringing. “Good breeding demands that pleasing and easy manner which can only be gained by dancing,” the famed dance teacher Pierre Rameau wrote in 1725. Dancing badly in court wasn’t just humiliating, it was also a potential career killer—and Montbron was all talk and no game.

The aristocrat took to the floor and immediately lost his balance. The audience doubled in laughter. Embarrassed, he tried deflecting attention from his legs with “affected attitudes,” waving his arms and making faces. The move backfired. Everyone laughed louder—including the most important man in the room, King Louis XIV.

“There were reportedly more than two hundred dancing schools in Paris in the 1660s, all devoted to training young noblemen to avoid similar dread breaches of etiquette,” writes Jennifer Homans in Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. The young aristocrat didn’t show his face in court for a long time after his grand flop.

King Louis XIV, a lifelong ballet dancer, would have it no other way. To him, ballet was more than an art. It was the political currency that kept his country together.

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When Louis XIV was 10, he was chased out of France by a band of angry aristocrats who wanted to keep royal powers in check. He had sat atop the throne for four years, but the country was run by adult advisors. The vacuum of power was a symptom of a series of aristocratic uprisings called Frondes.

At first, the rebels of the Fronde didn’t want to overthrow the government; they simply wanted to avoid absolute rule by royals. The government had raised taxes to recover funds from the Thirty Years’ War, and the nobility was opposed to the increase. But when civil war erupted, some factions tried taking control of the crown. By the time the young king returned in 1652 at age 14, his worldview had changed. He returned to Paris forever skeptical of his underlings.

For the rest of his life, Louis would be hell-bent on squashing the nobility’s thirst for power. He believed that God had granted him direct authority, and he fashioned himself after Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Louis called himself the “Sun King”—the star at the center of France’s universe—and ensured everybody knew it. He formed his own army and stripped aristocrats of their former military duties. As an absolute monarch, he declared: “I am the state.”

Louis did everything in his power to elevate his status. He practiced fencing and vaulting, and trained for hours daily with his personal dancing master, Pierre Beauchamp. It was more than mere exercise: According to the period’s political theory, the state of France was literally embodied by its ruler. Sculpting his muscles and ensuring that his body was perfectly developed and proportioned was a way to demonstrate he was the ultimate source of power, ruling by divine right.

To ensure that the aristocracy didn’t rise up and attempt to seize power from him again, Louis kept the patricians at Versailles within his sights—and perpetually busy. He turned Versailles into a gilded prison, calling in nobles from their far-away estates and forcing them to stay at court, where he could keep a close eye on them.

In a way, life at Versailles—which Louis had built into a palace—took the form of an intricately choreographed dance. Noblemen and women were restricted as to where they could stand, how they were allowed to enter or exit a room, and what type of chair they could sit on. The house was divided into elaborate wings, and inhabitants moved between them via sedan chairs, which functioned as indoor taxicabs. (Only the royal family had their own taxi-chairs. Everybody else had to flag them down.)

Louis XIV’s theory was that nobles couldn’t overthrow the government if they were too busy attending to trifling matters of etiquette. If nobles spent all of their energy trying to maintain their status, they wouldn’t have time or ability to rise up against the monarchy. And dance was one of the many ways Louis was able to keep the nobility in their place.

Dance had been intricately bound up with court etiquette for decades. But under Louis’s watch, it became one of the most important social functions of the court. Nobles learned about two to four new ballroom dances a year, performing the social dances before dinner. “At Louis’s court, a courtier probably had to keep some twelve dances at the ready, a considerable feat of memory in view of their diversity and complexity,” writes Wendy Hilton in Dance and Music of Court and Theater.

Louis XIV’s stage debut at age 15, Le Ballet de la Nuit, was a perfect example of the power games he would come to play. The performance, which consisted of 43 mini-ballets, lasted 12 hours and stretched overnight into dawn, with an elaborate set including chariots crossing the skies, winged horses dipping in and out of clouds, and monsters arising from waves. At the end of the performance, the Sun (played by Louis, encrusted in jewels and topped with ostrich feathers) comes to vanquish the Night. Louis would repeat the performance six more times over one month.

As Louis grew older, he staged elaborate, lengthy ballets—called ballets de cour—as masculine displays of athleticism and virility. (Women weren’t allowed to dance; feminine roles were usually performed by cross-dressing men.) The king, of course, danced the lead roles dressed in intricate costumes, gilded with expensive jewels. His favorite getup? Roman emperor.

It was a far cry from royal dances of the past. When ballet first emerged in Italy in the 15th century, it resembled a staged display of slow, elegant walking. Catherine de Medici brought the artform to France when she married King Henri II in 1533, but Louis XIV pushed the craft to become highly technical and distinctively French.

The ballets de cour were an extension of everyday court etiquette, all designed to keep the aristocracy perpetually nervous and literally on their toes. Pushing ballet forward was more than a power move at home—it was a way to show the rest of Europe that France was the center of high culture. Louis wanted world leaders to admire France’s artistic achievements as much as they admired the country’s military might.

And it worked. Royal French fashion, etiquette, and taste became extremely popular in the courts of other countries. The king of Sweden even sent an ambassador to France just to observe artistic developments and report back.

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Thanks to his enormous appetite, Louis XIV’s dancing career didn’t last. His sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine, wrote of a meal in which the king wolfed down “four bowls of different soups, a pheasant, a partridge, a large bowl of salad, two slices of ham, a slice of mutton and a dish of pastries, finished with fruit and boiled eggs.” According to a ballet myth, when the overweight king couldn’t execute the complicated entrechat-quatre jump—a move that requires a dancer to leap and beat his legs twice before landing—his dancing master invented a one-and-a-half beat jump as a cheat. Today, the jump is called the royale.

In 1701, Louis stood for a new royal portrait. The painter, Hyacinthe Rigaud, had a talent for rendering faces in exact, photographic detail—a skill that had previously caught the eye of various aristocrats. In fact, Rigaud was so popular among aristocrats that he often didn’t have the time to finish most of his paintings. Like a 17th century James Patterson, he had to hire a stable of aides. Fueled by hot chocolate and gimblette cookies, they were in charge of filling in background details.

Over the years, Rigaud had practically cataloged all the French nobility, and his work won praise because it depicted nobles as they wanted to be seen: grandiose, powerful, and wealthy. Louis, who was still determined to elevate his status, knew that Rigaud was the perfect portraitist for the job.

There’s a lot to giggle about in Rigaud’s final product: the French king’s disdainful expression, the glam-metal hair, his arm perched saucily on his hip, the heeled shoes, with jeweled buckles to boot! But, to Louis, the painting commanded respect. When Rigaud painted his subject, the 63-year-old King was a stout 5 feet, 4 inches. Rigaud portrayed him in a flattering light, tweaking the perspective so the viewer gazed up at the King, creating the appearance of a taller man—an effect heightened by mounting the portrait on a wall. Louis’s chunky dancing heels added a few inches of height, while coronation robes and ermine fur concealed his large body.

With the exception of his legs.

Louis was proud of his legs. Sculpted from years of ballet, they were signs of a cultured and athletic past, and while Louis had relinquished his danseur star status decades earlier, he never let his courtiers forget the power dance held in his government. Rigaud’s portrait was an intimidating display of the king’s strength and wealth, and whenever Louis was away from court, nobles were forbidden from turning their backs to the painting.

By that point, showing off his gams was the king’s way of showing off his legacy as a trailblazer. By the time Louis hung his portrait on the wall, he’d created the Royal Academy of Dance, precursor to the prestigious Paris Opera, been instrumental in codifying the five main foot positions used in ballet today, and helped make French the art form’s official language (consider terms like pirouette and plié). Were it not for Louis XIV, ballet might forever have remained a social dinner dance for bored Italian aristocrats.

If he were still alive, Louis would be appalled by the modern stereotypes of ballet as dainty. Nothing could be further from the truth: Ballet was a powerful political tool, a means of maintaining a country’s stability and keeping the status quo. It’s a stark reminder of how much the power games of politics have changed. While modern politicians polish their reputations with slick social media managers and a pinch of pandering, Louis did it with art.

Maybe it’s time for us to bring that tactic back. Can you imagine two opposing members of Congress debating the merits of immigration policy while performing a pas de deux in silken white tights?

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job secrets
11 Secrets of Backup Dancers
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

What would "Thriller" have looked like without Michael Jackson's army of dancing zombies? What if Madonna had to preen and pose her way through "Vogue" alone? And how could the hype of Hammertime ever be conveyed without the high-kicking energy of those parachute pants-clad b-boys?

Backup dancers add depth and dimension to live performances and music videos, and though you might not always know their names, chances are you've practiced quite a few of their moves. But what is it really like to work in the industry? From the audition circuit to backing superstars on tour and in music videos, we got the answers for anyone who thinks they can dance.


"I was late to the game," says Lori Sommer, a dancer who has worked with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Eve, of her start in the dancing world. "I was a martial artist, and that discipline and training gave me the ability to pick up choreography." Sommer says she was out dancing with friends at a New York club in the mid-'90s when she was scouted and encouraged to audition to be a club dancer at the popular house music venue Sound Factory Bar. There she befriended resident DJ Louie Vega, house music legend Barbara Tucker, choreographers, and others who could help her get her name in with bookers. Based on those connections, she landed her first tour with Reel 2 Real (best known for their dance track "I Like to Move It"). "That club really opened the door for me, but dancers have to constantly take classes and learn new things," she tells Mental Floss. "There's always a new style or move that will help us improve our abilities."

Dancer Mark Romain, who also had no formal training beyond joining college dance teams but has built a career dancing with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, agrees. "You have to work your craft. Like going to the gym to maintain your strength, you have to work out your creative muscles and skills regularly," he told BuzzFeed in 2013. "There is a big difference between doing well in dance class and being able to perform on a stage; it's important to get performance experience. If you start late, that's okay, but train, train, train."


Though backup dancers need to have enough personality and style to stand out at auditions, they often learn they can't draw too much attention away from the main performer or the theme of a shoot. When Sommer was working on Whitney Houston's 1999 video for "It's Not Right But It's Okay," she realized her blonde curls stood out too much for the video's dark set. "We were all dressed in these army fatigues, and once we started shooting, the director was like 'she's standing out,'" Sommer remembers. They pulled her hair back and tried again, but the director wanted it toned down even more. "They ended up putting hats on all of us to cover my hair, which is how we look in the final video. After that, a friend recommended I darken my hair, and I realized if I wanted to work more consistently, I needed to make that change to be more uniform. That was the last video I did as a blonde."


Often, dancers will show up to auditions with only a vague idea of what the artist really needs. So they learn to read a room. Dancer Pam Chu, who has done everything from being a Radio City Rockette to Cirque du Soleil to touring with Demi Lovato, told Cosmopolitan that when she went to audition for Britney Spears's Las Vegas residency, she was apprehensive because she didn't know any of the people involved. So she psyched herself up and figured it out as the day went on. "From the way the choreographers were teaching, I knew they wanted people who had technique, style, and would dance full out—all the time," Chu says. "I knew not to sit down in the audition—ever. We were there for nine hours." After a round of callbacks, Chu got a contract.


Because their lives are often dictated by demanding tour schedules and opportunities that feel impossible to turn down, dancers regularly have to miss family events and other personal milestones. "I sacrificed a gig and a tour once because I didn't want to miss my goddaughter's birthday," Sommer recalls. "I'd missed her first birthday because I was in Europe, and I said I couldn't miss her second. It's hard because you put yourself at risk of being replaced."

And for others, an opportunity can change their whole trajectory. Ashley Everett, Beyonce's longtime dance captain, was just 17 when she made the cut for her first-ever tour. The timing seemed impeccable—The Beyonce Experience tour would wrap up the week before she was supposed to start classes at her dream school, Juilliard. But then, the tour was extended. "I had to make a decision," Everett told Refinery29. "Go after the lifelong dream that had been on my bucket list my entire life, or stick it out with a legend, with no idea of what would happen next. I took a leap of faith and stayed on the tour. Obviously, it paid off!"


Despite the jetsetting lifestyle and getting to work with superstars, most dancers are essentially independent contractors. That means booking gigs piecemeal, working long hours, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making roughly $14 an hour on average, or $34,000 a year.

"Yes, longer-term jobs like a tour or a TV show or a movie might keep us busy for months straight, but the reality of the situation is that eventually that job will end and we have to start back over—gigging or auditioning for something else," Everett wrote in a 2016 HuffPost piece. "I'll be in 12-hour rehearsals for two months straight, then on other days I'm left not knowing when my next job will come. It's the business. We always have to stay on our toes and stay grinding."

Sommer agrees. "It can be a struggle," she says. During their time between shoots or tours, dancers frequently have more steady side jobs. Sommer worked as a dancer-for-hire for entertainment companies, where she would go to bar mitzvahs or weddings along with the band or DJ and encourage guests to come out on the dance floor. Many others do projects as choreographers and teachers, and look for commercial work, which is usually short on hours but long on pay (think dancing in Gap, Target, or car commercials). "You gotta work when work is available," Sommer says. "There's a lot of eating on a budget, a lot of ramen noodles. But every dancer I know wouldn't change it for the world."


While many artists are known to tweak routines between tour stops or switch up sets or transitions to keep things fresh, sometimes a dancer's hard work will get sidelined because the artist just isn't feeling it. That can be devastating, especially for major award shows like the Grammys or the VMAs, which are extremely sought-after roles with multiple auditions and rehearsals that can last for 10 hours a day.

Sommer recalled that at her first VMAs in 1999, she snagged a spot dancing for Jay-Z, who was also making his first VMA appearance with a medley of his recent hits like "Can I Get A…" and "Hard Knock Life." "My friend Ray [dancer and promoter Voodoo Ray] had choreographed this great piece, and it was a huge opportunity for him," Sommer says. "And on the day of the VMAs as we were rehearsing, all of a sudden Jay said he didn't want anyone dancing backup." Instead, he wanted his crew, which included DJ Clue, Amil, and 15 or so other friends, to hang on stage where the dancers were meant to be. The dozen backup dancers were moved to the side stages and were allowed to dance there, but it didn't have the same effect as the choreographed routine they were preparing for. "I mean, I got paid for my time," Sommer says. "But not to do what I'd practiced and really, really wanted to do."


It's common to see singers use earpieces during live shows in order to hear themselves or their band better. But dancers will often wear in-ear monitors as well, especially for large arena shows when the roar of the crowd can drown out any chance of staying in sync with the music. "It's an interesting experience … because we can't hear the audience," dancer David Shreibman told W Magazine about wearing "ears" while touring with Justin Bieber. "All you're hearing is Bieber's voice and the choreographer talking to us throughout the show. I took my ears out last night … and it was SO loud. When he goes into 'Baby,' it's crazy. I had to cover my ears."


Sometimes having a built-in dance partner can help get dancers noticed and book gigs. French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, already known in their home country as "Les Twins," made a splash in the States when they started working with Beyonce in 2011; they've since toured with her multiple times, appeared in numerous videos, and recently won Jennifer Lopez's new competition show, World of Dance. Mark and Donald Romain often appear together as dancers at awards shows and have been in videos like Britney Spears’s "Till the World Ends." And up-and-coming Korean twins Kwon Young Deuk and Kwon Young Don, who have backed Psy and other KPop acts, are getting plenty of fan attention and calls to upgrade them to "idols" in their industry.

But for Canadian sisters Jenny and Jayme Rae Dailey, who have done music videos, TV shows like Smash and X Factor, and movies like the Step Up franchise, sometimes working together just isn't in the cards. "For us, it's not really competing because we go in together as twins. We are a team when we audition," Jenny told the Montreal Gazette in 2013. "Our mentality is, 'If it's not both of us, it's none of us,' although it doesn't always work out that way."


For all of the stories of artists who date their backup dancers (Mariah Carey and Bryan Tanaka, Jennifer Lopez with Cris Judd and Casper Smart, Prince and Mayte Garcia, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, etc.), those long hours rehearsing and traveling together can really cement a familial bond. "I became very close to those who danced with me, but even closer with [those] who danced on tour with me," Janet Jackson told an audience in October 2017 before she brought out a number of those dancers to perform "Rhythm Nation," a staple at her shows since the song and its iconic video took the world by storm in 1989. One those dancers who returned was Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who got her big break touring with Jackson in 2001-02.

"Janet asked her 'kids' to come back and perform rhythm nation at the Hollywood Bowl," Dewan-Tatum posted on Instagram. "I dreamt of dancing with her since I was a kid and literally pinched myself every night of the All for You tour. And here I am pinching myself again last night. She created a legacy for her dancers and she personally began my career! It all begins with Jan. Thank you for this my love!!!"

(Another person who worked as a backup dancer for Janet before making it big on her own? Jennifer Lopez, who was in the 1993 video for "That's the Way Love Goes.")


The lack of health coverage and union benefits for dancers was widespread until very recently. Dancers Alliance, a group working to negotiate equitable rates, healthcare options, and ensure dancer safety, launched campaigns in 2011 to get contracts for work on music videos and in 2013 to unionize tours. "I believe dancers who have trained themselves to a professional level should be treated—and compensated—as professionals," Dancers Alliance board member Dana Wilson told Dance Magazine in 2015. The group had worked out a contract with SAG-AFTRA for music video shoots in 2011, but Wilson, who was dancing with Justin Timberlake at the time, pushed for a union tour contract so that the dancers would be eligible for health care and other benefits while on the road. It worked. In 2014, Timberlake became the first artist to protect his backup dancers under a SAG-AFTRA contract.


As with most athletic careers, dancers know that eventually they'll have to back away from their sport. Injuries, from muscle strains and spasms to various tears and sprains, can take their toll. Many performers, like Paula Abdul and Lady Gaga, have discussed their issues with chronic pain.

"The wear and tear on body is tremendous," Sommer says. She would know—a herniated disc sidelined her dancing career in 2002. "Most dancers are going to find ways to work through injuries. A lot of Epsom salt, Bengay. It's a beautiful life that enables you to travel and see the world, but there was the point in time when I couldn't walk."

Many dancers find ways to stay active by teaching or going into the fitness industry, developing exercise and training careers. Some, like much of the staff of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy, were professional dancers who turned their specified knowledge of dancers' bodies into careers in the medical field.

In fact, the variety of post-dance careers can be as varied as those of non-dancers. Sommer went into comedy, becoming a mainstay stand-up in New York City and now managing the West Side Comedy Club. And at least one former '90s dancer became a football coach: One of M.C. Hammer's original "U Can’t Touch This" dancers, Alonzo Carter, is currently the running backs coach at San Jose State.

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Pop Culture
12 High-Kicking Facts about the Radio City Rockettes
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More than 2 million people see the Radio City Rockettes's Christmas Spectacular show each season—and it’s a wonder you have to see to believe. Here are some things you might not have known about the leggy dance company, which has become synonymous with the magic of the holiday season.


Nope, this wasn’t always a Midtown Manhattan production. The Rockettes launched in 1925 as the Missouri Rockets, a Follies-style dance troupe out of St. Louis. Creator Russell Markert got the idea after he was impressed by the UK precision dance troupe in 1922’s Ziegfeld Follies. “If I ever got a chance to get a group of American girls who would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks,” he once said, “they’d really knock your socks off.”


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Theater magnate S.L. (“Roxy”) Rothafel caught a show while the group toured in New York and hired the dance team—then a group of 16 women—for his Roxy Theater (demolished in 1961, it stood at 50th Street and Seventh Avenue). The dance company went through a few names—the Roxyettes, the American Rockets, and even the Rosettes—before Roxy found a moniker and location that stuck.


Rothafel planned and designed Radio City Music Hall, a joint venture between John D. Rockefeller and RCA. On opening night, December 27, 1932, the precision dance team performed alongside 17 other acts, including Martha Graham and vaudevillian Ray Bolger (you might know him as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz).


The team behind the show, produced by Leon Leonidoff (a Radio City mainstay, whose "name on a production represented a warranty of grandeur") and designed by Vincente Minnelli (eventual husband to Judy Garland and father of Liza), had major star power. Back then, the Rockettes and other live performers served as a sort of opener for screenings of the latest films. Now, of course, Radio City is a premier concert hall, akin to playing Carnegie Hall.


The troupe picketed outside Radio City that September, rallying for better wages given their demanding rehearsal schedule and pay for rehearsal time (previously they were paid only for performances). The standoff lasted 27 days and the dancers won out in negotiations, just in time for the holiday show to go on.


At Radio City, the group’s creator continued on as their director, lead choreographer, and stern drill sergeant until his retirement in 1971. A father-like figure to about 2500 Rockettes, he referred to his employees as his “dancing daughters.”


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Markert’s vision was a drill team that performed and moved as one dancer. For each member of the Rockettes to learn precisely how to hit her marks, choreographers assign a grid-like system of labels to the stage; one Rockette recently likened it to a game of Battleship.


Sure, people may write these girls off as “Stepford dancers, objectified women reduced to nothing but legs and teeth,” per The New York Times. But in the same story, the Times points out that the Rockettes’s physical accomplishment is nothing to sneeze at: “Even in a city full of sweating, striving talent, the Rockettes may well be the hardest-working women in show business.” Case in point: Before opening night, November 13, the troupe rehearses for six hours each day, six days a week, for nearly six weeks. On any given day, when the Rockettes perform up to five shows, a single dancer can do more than 1000 high kicks.


“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a perennial favorite in the Christmas Spectacular, has been part of the holiday show since its first year. Dancers, who take tiny, precise steps in straight formations, say it’s one of the hardest numbers in the show. Spoiler alert: The dance ends with a slow-motion backwards fall, where each soldier knocks down the next in a domino-effect move. Talk about Christmas magic.


Speaking of the toy soldiers: the Rockettes have a mere 78 seconds to change out of those starchy white pants and impossibly high hats (which actually cover their eyes), and into their next costumes: the sparkly red and green dresses and white coats of the "Christmas in New York" number. The dancers also have to fit shoe, hat and, earring changes into those 78 seconds, and quickly remove the red felt circles that they adhere to their cheeks with double-stick tape during the toy soldier number. In one holiday season, the Rockettes go through 15,000 pairs of those red cheeks. Also, of their numerous other outfits, the Santa Claus costumes—which weigh 40 pounds each—are the only one they get to wear flat shoes with.


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For the Living Nativity number, which closes the show and involves a parade of robed dancers and animals walking below the North Star, the production trots out a few four-legged celebrities, including Ted the camel, who’s held his role for two decades and is said to be a bit of a prima donna. In 2015, for the first time, the Archbishop of New York blessed the show’s animals before opening night. During the show’s run, the animals actually live in Radio City and take walks outside on the streets in the wee hours each morning.


Hundreds of women audition every spring for 80 cast-member spots (though just 36 dancers perform at each show), and even Rockettes who want to return for another season must re-audition with no guarantee of a placement. Applicants must be skilled in tap, jazz, ballet, and modern dance, and must stand between 5’6” and 5’10½” without shoes. Plenty of hopefuls audition multiple times before they make the cut. Over the course of each show, every dancer changes costumes up to eight times, does more than 200 high kicks, and handles her own hair and makeup—multiple times a day for more than a month. Plus, they do all of this while maintaining chipper smiles, doing promotional appearances, and spreading good cheer.


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