NEW YORK (AP) — There's nothing more American than the high-kicking Rockettes, right? Don't their classic moves and dazzling smiles each Christmas just scream USA? You might want to guess again.
This year's line-up of 80 young, athletic women includes four Canadians and a pair of Australians, mirroring both the globalization of American culture and the fresh interest in dance.
"This is such an amazing American tradition," said Karen Ritchie, who hails from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. "Rockettes are icons, in their own right. To be included in it is really gratifying."
Ritchie, in her 11th season as a Rockette, is joined by two Australians — Jackie Aitken, from Brisbane, making her Radio City Music Hall debut, and Sophie Rose Holloway, from Sydney, making her second appearance.
There are also three sisters — Kristin, Lisa and Alison Jantzie — who are celebrating their fourth year as Rockettes together. They're from the rural community of Lacombe, in Canada's western Alberta province. In recent years, Rockettes have also come from Japan and the United Kingdom, and having six foreign Rockettes is not too unusual.
This year, rehearsals got under way at the end of September — six hours a day, six days a week for six weeks. The dancers must prepare for as many as 17 shows a week. But for the non-native born, it's a special privilege.
"Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and say, 'I am a Rockette,'" said Holloway, who first came across the dancer group during a visit to New York with members of her dance studio.
"I was 14 and I was just like, 'My god, these beautiful, tall women in front of me in these nice heels,'" she said. "I thought, 'Maybe one day I'll be able to do that.'"
Aitken, too, was smitten during a student tour. She had trained at the Conroy Dance Centre in Brisbane and got backstage at Radio City. She did a mock audition and learned some Rockettes' choreography.
Now she beams with pride while looking at a backstage photo of sequined women in 1933 performing the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, a sequence that hasn't changed in the intervening years.
"It's really touching to me to be a part of it," she said. "We'll be part of it forever. Once a Rockette, always a Rockette."
The Rockettes' rich legacy is less well known in Australia than it is in nearby Canada, but social media has helped fuel interest. Holloway, who often teaches, said her young students sometimes have no idea what she does at Christmas. After she tells them, they run to YouTube.
"They come back the next lesson and are like, 'Miss Sophie, is that what you do? You do all those high kicks?'" she said, laughing.
There's no nationality test, of course, to become a Rockette. Candidates must stand between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-10½ and be proficient at tap, jazz and ballet. Hundreds audition each year, fed by TV shows like "Dancing With the Stars," ''America's Got Talent" and "So You Think You Can Dance."
This year's group includes yoga teachers, students, businesswomen and moms. They audition fresh each time and prepare to join a special sisterhood.
"It doesn't matter how much exercise you do on your own. Once you're actually working with 80 women, it's a completely different thing," said Aitken. "We have to work as a unit, as one."
No matter the passport.
Follow Mark Kennedy at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mark-kennedy