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In America, holiday traditions vary from family to family, town to town, state to state and region to region. When it comes to Christmas, in particular, the numbers of ways that people (Christians and non-Christians, alike) celebrate the season can hardly be quantified. Christmas in Vegas, for example, will resemble Christmas in, say, Vermont, only to the extent that blinking lights will probably play a role in the festivities in both locations. Beyond that, the manner in which the denizens mark the occasion are likely to be so divergent that they might as well be celebrating on different planets.
Some holiday traditions, however, are so ingrained in the culture that, whether we live three blocks or three thousand miles away from where they unfold, most of us gain a certain measure of comfort from knowing, positively knowing, that when December rolls around, so will these time-honored happenings. More than a few of these seasonal markers occur in New York City — the Rockefeller Center tree lighting; the Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet (and on a hundred other stages, large and small, across the land); Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall. But one could make the argument that absolutely nothing in the entire tinsel-bedecked panoply of holiday extravaganzas anywhere in the country — nay, in the world — says “Christmas is here” quite like Radio City Music Hall’s annual “spectacular,” and specifically, those smiling, high-kicking precision-dancing Rockettes.
Here, As the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular kicks off once again in New York City, LIFE.com looks back at the Rockettes through the lens of one specific year — 1964 — and the lives of the company’s dancers. Most of these pictures, by LIFE’s Art Rickerby, were never published in LIFE magazine.
In the cover story for its December 11, 1964, issue (left), the magazine regaled its readers with behind-the-scenes tales of “The World’s Most Famous Kick” and how the dancers themselves prepped for four shows a day, seven days a week, on one of the most famous stages in the world. The piece also focused on five young dancers who, out of the many, many hopefuls who auditioned in 1964, were talented and driven enough to make the grade:
(NOTE: According to Radio City’s latest requirements, Rockettes “must be between 5′ 6″ and 5′ 10.5″ tall … [and] must be proficient in jazz and tap.”)
LIFE also offered glimpses, of course, into the creative force behind the dance numbers — namely, Russell Markert, the show’s long-time director:
Of the first-year Rockettes themselves who were featured in the issue — young women who hailed from small towns in Maine, Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania — LIFE wrote (utterly demystifying any notion that anyone might still harbor of the glamorous life a young dancer leads in the Big Apple):
All these years later, at least that part of the story remains unchanged. After all the hard work and hard knocks and sore muscles and self-doubts, the Rockettes head out on stage and there — eagerly waiting, happily anticipating — are thousands of men, women and (of course) children who have come from near and far to see them.
How many of us, after all, can say that about our jobs?