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Gatorade, diet coke, protein bar. The dressing table of a Rockette holds more than lipstick and hair gel. After all, sustained energy is key to powering those eye-high kicks that mark each performance.

"You want to kick your toe to your eye," said Laura Danelski of Lancaster, a third-year Rockette. "We do kick lines in every single number. It's very demanding. A lot of us eat protein bars. Some of the girls drink Red Bull. Our training during rehearsals is like training for the Olympics."

For Buffalo, it all starts Thursday, when the Radio City Christmas Spectacular opens at Shea's Performing Arts Center. The two-week, 38-performance run marks the first time this holiday show plays Buffalo. It will also be the first time Danelski dances as a Rockette in her hometown.

"My first year, I danced in Chicago, then last year in Seattle and Phoenix," explained Danelski, 22. "But this will definitely be my favorite year, getting to do the show at home."

Danelski and her 21 linemates rumbled into town Friday on board luxury buses from Columbus, Ohio, where they had been rehearsing for nearly a month. The show's scenery, costumes and props, meanwhile, filled 15 48-foot trucks. And while this road show is not exactly like the one that plays Radio City Music Hall, its hallmarks remain the same.

The "Parade of the Wooden Soldier," for one, has been performed in every holiday show at Radio City since 1933. Staged midway through the 90-minute show, its finale features an amazing display of coordination, precision and trust as all the Rockettes tumble -- one into another -- like dominoes.

"The cannon rolls out; we're shot, and we start slowly to fall one at a time," said Danelski. "It looks like magic. We end up flat on the ground at the end. We're told to stay "light as a feather, stiff as a board.' The last two or three girls fall on a cushion to soften the blow."

The soldier scene is one of 12 vignettes that altogether showcase just about every traditional holiday song. Perhaps the most cherished is an adaptation of Tchaikowsky's "Nutcracker Suite," which stars 19 dancing bears. Each bear is from a different part of the world and each costume can weigh from 30 to 60 pounds.

"The 12 Days of Christmas," the Rockettes' most intricate tap number, lasts more than seven minutes. It's the favorite part of the show for Danelski, who has been tap dancing since age 3 -- about a decade before she even considered becoming a Rockette. It was at the age of 12 that she first "cracked" the Radio City stage after seeing a performance there with her family.

"I waited in front of the stage until everybody left," she recalled. "And then I got up on it so my Dad could take a picture."

Barbara Danelski -- who plans on seeing her daughter perform eight times during the Buffalo run -- remembers well that moment in Manhattan when her daughter climbed on stage. It was part of a journey that began at the Pat Taylor School of Dance in Lancaster, where at the age of 13, Danelski began to turn heads.

The personal turning point, according to her mother, occurred in Rochester, where Danelski took the bronze medal in a jazz solo during the New York Dance Olympics.

"That is when I knew she had potential," said Barbara Danelski. "I knew she was good and clean with her tap, but jazz is so hard to conquer. I was thrilled. That told me right there she should pursue it."

At age 16, Danelski began to study at the David DeMarie Dance Studio before being accepted at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she graduated in May with a degree in modern dance.

In her young life, Danelski has weathered many auditions, but the two-day marathon at Radio City stands out.

"The audition was pretty intense," Danelski said. "It's two full days of tap combinations, jazz combinations and kick line. Usually about 500 women show up and by the end of the second day, they have it down to about 10."

And if these 10 young women get the chance to dance together, odds are they will become friends, such is the nature of the Radio City tour.

"We basically spend 24 hours a day next to each other," Danelski said, "because the woman you dance next to in the line is the same woman you're next to in the dressing room. I've met all of my best friends from being a Rockette."

When not playing reindeers or wooden soldiers or rag dolls, the Rockettes contribute time to local charitable efforts. In Buffalo, the women will visit Roswell Park Cancer Institute and -- as the Thanksgiving holiday nears -- an area soup kitchen to help dish out food.

In addition to caring for others in the communities they visit, the Rockettes have learned to treat themselves to hot baths with Epsom salts to help vanquish the aches that can come after four performances in one day.

As for dieting?

"We don't really have to diet during the run because we're working out so much," said Danelski. "So we can eat whatever we want. It's a fine line between eating enough to get through the show and not eating so much that you're going to make yourself sick. I can live on bread and butter."

Despite the diet, there is no doubt that Danelski is thriving as a Rockette. The 5-foot, 8-inch dancer absolutely loves her role, a fact that became apparent to her mother during a phone conversation two years ago from Chicago.

"They asked her to do a mall appearance," said Barbara Danelski. "When it was over, she called me and I heard tears in her voice. She told me of a little girl who caught her eye. And she told me she gave the girl one of her winks.

""She was me,'" her mother said Laura told her.


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