Karmen Moore of Memphis in her dressing room, as a new member of the world-famous Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Every profession has its own jargon. For the Rockettes who perform at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, one example is “eye-highs.”

“See our iconic eye-highs on stage this holiday season!” promises the Rockettes’ Facebook page.

“When we kick, we actually bring our leg to where our toe reaches the height of our eyes,” explains Karmen Moore, a rookie Rockette who — to paraphrase the immortal words of Memphis Music Hall of Fame members ZZ Top — has got legs, and knows how to use them.

Moore, 21, is a new addition to the 84-member roster of the Radio City Rockettes. A lifelong devotee of dance who was born and raised in Memphis, she will bring Bluff City energy to the celebrated “kickline” of the precision Big Apple dance company that for almost a century has been a fixture of what might be America’s most famous theater.

What that means for the holiday season is that from Nov. 17 through New Year’s Day, Moore will appear four times a day as a Wooden Soldier, a Frost Fairy and seven other characters during the Rockettes’ annual “Christmas Spectacular,” a New York holiday tradition since 1933, rivaled only by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began in 1924.

The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers is a highlight of the Rockettes'

“Our high kicks are definitely what we are known for,” Moore said. “But a deep understanding of ballet, tap and jazz is required. Becoming a Rockette, you realize how important it is to be a flexible and versatile dancer.”

Moore first saw the Rockettes in person at age 12, during a trip to Opryland in Nashville. She saw them again at age 15, on a field trip to New York, as a student with the Dance Academy of Bartlett

“I remember pretty much exactly where I was when I saw them, and from then on that’s been my dream, to be on that line,” she said. 

Moore already was a fan of some of the elaborate dance numbers.

“The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers — I’ve loved it since when I was a kid, and I love it more now that I’m a part of it,” she said. “Being able to perform on this stage, you can feel the legacy of all these women who have been doing it for decades. You feel part of something very big and special.”

From ‘crazy passion’ to career

A resident of Memphis and its suburbs all her life until her recent move to New York, Moore grew up in what she calls “a dancing family,” where the sounds of Motown as well as Stax were on the stereo (her mother was from Detroit). Said Moore: “I always get called ‘an old soul,’ and I feel like that’s because of all the old-school soul music that was around the house.”

Most kids like to bop, but Moore wanted more. From the age of 4 through high school, she attended dance classes and participated in performances at the Dance Academy of Bartlett, Dance Dynamics Memphis and Collage Dance, the professional dance company and school founded in 2009.

“You never forget the ones who are special,” said Collage co-founding executive director Marcellus Harper, 46.

Karmen Moore and the Rockettes, during October rehearsals.

Harper said Moore was “a great mover,” with “a very strong work ethic.” But what set her apart, he said, was her “open spirit. She’s always yearning for information and has a curiosity that is quite exceptional, so I think that adds depth to her dancing.”

After graduating from Bartlett High School in 2019, Moore attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas as a dance major. By this time, after what she calls “years and years of dedication,” she had decided that her “crazy passion” for dance could become a career.

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“It’s not the most traditional trajectory, unless you have parents who are very supportive of what you want to do and what will make you happy,” she said, heaping praise (and affection) on her mom and dad, Tiffeni and Kenneth Moore (both engineers).

Learning dance, “I was interested in doing everything, which made me a very flexible dancer. Martha Graham technique, ballet, modern jazz, I wanted to do it all. But I always had this dream in the back of my head to be a Rockette. They had strangely been in the periphery of my whole life, from when I grew up watching them on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

Karmen gets her kicks

By the time Moore graduated from SMU in May of this year, her application to take part in the “Rockettes Conservatory” — the first step on the launch pad to possible Rockette-dom — had been accepted. She was flown to New York, loved the work, and made the grade as a Rockette. Soon, she was sharing a Manhattan apartment with another rookie Rockette, Kailey Doukszewicz of Boston, and beginning a regimen of six-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week practices, which began six weeks before the Nov. 17 debut of this year’s “Christmas Spectacular.”

The show includes nine costume changes, the fastest being a 78-second “quick change” from Wooden Soldier to holiday shopper, for the “Christmas in New York” number. But Moore said she especially enjoys “the beautiful, bejeweled costumes with fairy wings” that 36 dancers wear during the “Frost Fairies” segment, “each one showing the uniqueness of a snowflake.”

If snowflakes are unique, the Rockettes themselves suffered from an unfortunate homogeneity, until recent decades: The first Black Rockette did not eye-high across the Radio City stage until 1988. Since then, the Rockettes have picked up the pace, to make their kicklines more diverse.

She gets her kicks as a Rockette: Memphis' Karmen Moore.

“The Rockettes have a long and strong reputation in the dance world, but they were an institution that historically had not included Black dancers,” Harper said. “What is wonderful about Karmen’s appointment is that it shows how they are beginning to embrace diversity as a strength.”

“We always describe being a Rockette like being in a sisterhood,” Moore said. “I feel like I’ve gained a lot of sisters, older and younger. ‘Teamwork makes the dream work,’ and you see how that functions. That’s the beauty of the line.”

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Moore said her lifelong connection to dance has benefited more than her physical fitness. “I feel like it is sort of a magical expression of oneself that connects to the spirit. It allows me to be able to express my fullest self and share it with others. The observer and the participant sort of mesh, and it’s a full experience.

“I feel like no other art is quite like it, and my life has been better for it.”