At the height of her professional dance career, Danielle Jolie Dale-Hancock made history. By day, she was dance captain for the Radio City Rockettes, the first person of color to earn that title. By night, she was a New York Knicks Dancer—the first performer to hold both positions at the same time.
“You talk about different styles,” she says. “I’d have my tights and my heels on, and my lipstick, all pretty and glamoured, and then I’d run down to the Garden, and I’d have to be hip-hop, with knee pads and Doc Martens, and there were no tights, and your hair is free and wild. Not everyone can wear that hat. You have to be diverse and flexible in your way of thinking.”
Diversity and flexibility: For aspiring dancers under Dale-Hancock’s tutelage, these skills have become mantras. They have helped see her through not only 18 years with the Rockettes but a steady career on Broadway, in musicals such as “Saturday Night Fever” and “Ragtime.” She has performed at the Tonys, the Oscars and on 10 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades.
Dale-Hancock was pregnant with her second child when she retired from the Rockettes, in 2011, and she moved to Boca Raton with her family a year later, citing the quieter, family-friendly lifestyle. But she still keeps a busy schedule, rising every morning at 4:30 for her stretching and jogging regimen, running her own fitness business (VIP Pilates), and, as of last fall, teaching at Lynn University as the school’s esteemed artist in residence.
What excites you about working at Lynn?
The diversity of everything—not just of the students but what we’re offering the students. The fact that there is no musical theatre degree that I know where the students are being taught every style of dance—not just ballet, not just modern. There’s a ballet class, a tap class, and the next day a jazz class. And we have a class called Various Styles. The first part of this year, we did “Chicago,” so for the full semester we were delving into [Bob] Fosse. And that’s a hard technique. And we just finished “Gigi,” so we were focusing on ballroom.
As the artist in residence, what do you bring to your students?
It’s about getting the artistry out of that person … You can have a great voice, but then how do you perform that? You can be a great dancer, and have great lines, and turn turn turn, but if there’s nothing going on in your face, then no one’s watching you. That’s the artist—perfecting the tools. It’s the package that makes people come into these seats and stay.
Does succeeding as a Rockette involve a different skill set than, say, dancing in a ballet or a contemporary dance company?
Definitely. As a Radio City Rockette, you have to have that precision ability, meaning to match everyone—one line is 36 [people]. Whereas, if you have a ballet corps, you still have that originality to have the head turned just slightly differently. With the Rockettes, if your index finger is off one millimeter, we pull it back in. As the captain, we’re looking at the line, and we say, ‘stop, hold. Holly, put your arm a little bit higher. Stop. Erin, put your toe back in.’ In ballet, we don’t. We go with the flow. Not everyone can do that. Some people call it controlling. You’re not able to be free.
The Rockettes had a long history [until 1985] of only hiring white dancers. Were you always comfortable there?
I’ve always not matched anybody in my whole life, so I never thought about it. To me, it was always just about having fun, and doing my passion, which is dance. And then when you walk into a room where everyone else has that same kind of passion, it erases everything else. In my first day of rehearsal, I was in a room with women that just wanted to dance. And that was the goal.
As a Knicks Dancer, how different is that environment—and the audience—from your performances in a hushed concert hall?
It’s not hushed at the Garden. They have people walking around selling beer! It’s a different mindset, but at the same time, I was a cheerleader in high school, too. It peps you up. In a theater, where it is quiet, is where your inner enthusiasm has to come through.