BACKSTAGE AT RADIO City Music Hall, Sydney Mesher convenes with her fellow Rockettes. Sitting in a brick-colored upholstered chair, she gets her hair and makeup performance-ready. The end of the mascara tube rests in the crook of her left elbow as she twists its wand free with her right hand, then applies. She gathers her shoulder-length blond hair into a sleek French twist, doing the twisting and pinning with her right hand while her left arm straightens and temporarily secures. It all happens with the same practiced ease, if different mechanics, of everyone else in the room.
Moments before the show, she gets the antlers for her costume checked. She high-fives one of her fellow Rockettes and does a little shimmy with another before finding her place onstage.
On the other side of the curtain, more than 6,000 New York City locals and wide-eyed out-of-towners are snuggling into their red velvet seats, directly under one of the most famous marquees in the world. Eager to witness mirrored kick lines and crimson smiles magically move with precise synchronization, the audience settles in for a piece of a long-standing holiday tradition.
When the curtain rises on the official opening night in mid-November for the "Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes," the patrons witness a shift in tradition. Mesher, the first Rockette with a visible disability in the organization's 94-year history, makes her debut. From here on, Mesher will be the example. She'll be the change.
The 22-year-old, who was born with the rare congenital condition symbrachydactyly and doesn't have a left hand, joins the center of the kick line. Her toes sail to eye level in perfect sync with those of her colleagues. Mesher makes the exacting geometry and speed look easy. If you zoom out to take a macro look at the stage, she disappears into the line, as intended.
The performance begins with "Sleigh Ride," and the Rockettes achieve the illusion of a sea of identical, interchangeable women. It's part of what makes them the most famous precision dance troupe in America -- if not the world.
"Being a Rockette, and being a Rockette with one hand -- I am groundbreaking in that sense," Mesher says. "So even though I don't consider my disability to be that challenging, I need to be in this position to let others have that opportunity."
LYNN MESHER WAS 23 weeks pregnant when a routine ultrasound turned up something out of the ordinary. "The tenor and tone of Lynn's doctor's appointment changed dramatically," her husband, Page Mesher, recalls. Their eldest, Paige Claire, was just over a year old at the time and healthy. It had never occurred to them, still in the dark as to whether their second would be a boy or a girl, that something might be wrong.
Then the doctor delivered the news: There was conclusive evidence that their child would be born without a left hand. Lynn burst into tears. When she composed herself enough to speak, the first thought she expressed was that her child wouldn't be able to wear a wedding ring.
"I took my wedding ring off my left hand and put it on my right hand," Page says. "And a power greater than myself opened my mouth. And I said, 'It doesn't matter. If this is a girl, she's going to grow up seeing that her dad wears his wedding ring on his right hand, and she'll do it just like him.' "
Sitting with his wife on their eldest daughter's couch in Brooklyn, just after their 25th wedding anniversary, Page holds up his right hand. All these years later, the ring is still there.
Once Mesher was old enough, she and her family worked with the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland, Oregon, to have a prosthetic hand made. But she quickly abandoned the prosthetic because she found it kinesthetically more challenging and kids at school called her "the girl with the fake hand," her mother recalls. "Shriners taught us the most important piece of information," Lynn says. "Do not handicap her. Do not do things for her. Let her try first and figure everything out."
Her parents gave Mesher room to try, fail and try again. And sure enough, she found her way of doing things. When Page coached her in Little League softball, for example, "she figured out her way of catching, throwing and batting with one hand," he says. "It didn't matter what I suggested. Sydney figured it out."
When Mesher was 4, her father saw a story in the sports section of The Oregonian about the leading scorer on the girls' basketball team at Condon High School. Her name was Nicole Jamieson, and like Mesher, she had been born with one hand. Page got in touch with the family through the reporter and drove more than 200 miles from Portland to Helix so that Mesher could meet Jamieson and see her play.
"What's funny about that," Jamieson remembers, "is that the first time I saw Sydney, I looked at the stands and saw a little girl with one hand, and she was dancing to the music that the band was playing."
"SHE WAS DANCING before she walked," Lynn says. "It just was her way of being, every day. It wasn't a conscious decision to say, 'Oh, we're going to enroll her in dance.' It was something she was showing us. This is who she is, so what doors can we open for her?"
Mesher started taking hip-hop dance classes before she reached elementary school age. By the time she was in third grade, she had joined her studio's competition team and was dancing 25 hours a week, training primarily in jazz, tap and ballet, in addition to hip-hop.
Jamieson briefly worked for Page's company after graduating from Concordia University-Portland, and she lived with the Mesher family. Sydney was in grade school, and Jamieson became an example of limitlessness for her.
"She taught me how to tie my shoes," Mesher says. "She taught me how to shave my armpits. Nicole taught me how to put my hair up in a more efficient way. She ... really helped me figure things out and made things a little bit easier for me."
It quickly became apparent that Mesher matched her passion with natural talent. A defining moment came at a New York City Dance Alliance competition when she was plucked from the 7- to 10-year-olds room and named a regional outstanding dancer. Part of the prize was a scholarship to attend the NYCDA finals in New York City. Another was getting to perform in the "Christmas Spectacular" National Arena Tour, a multicity arena tour with the Rockettes.
"That was my first real introduction," Mesher says. "I had grown up watching them in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television, but seeing them live, that was a game-changer."
It also technically marked her first "Christmas Spectacular" performance. "Back then, they would hire a local studio to do the opening number, and they hired my dance studio," Mesher says. "I did the opening number for the Rockettes when I was like 11 years old."
It was also around that time that Mesher got serious about wanting to pursue dance professionally. She wanted to jump-start her career right after high school.
"We support your dance," Lynn told her daughter, "but you need to go to college." Both Lynn and Page are small-business owners and wanted Mesher to pick up a diverse set of skills. "These young dancers don't understand," Page adds. "They're one knee injury away from being done. God forbid. I need to find some wood to knock on."
Mesher landed at Pace University in New York City to pursue her bachelor's in fine arts. "I wanted to work commercially, to be in music videos and touring, that type of thing," she says. There are a number of critically acclaimed physically integrated dance companies (troupes that hire dancers with and without disabilities) in the U.S., such as Axis Dance Company in Oakland, California, and Heidi Latsky Dance in New York. But they tend to work almost exclusively within the realm of contemporary concert dance. There's far less of a blueprint for dancers like Mesher interested in working commercially -- illustrated by the fact that she's making history by performing in the 86th season of the "Christmas Spectacular."
"When I started to dive into the technique of the Rockettes in college, I fell in love with the diligence and the specificity of it," Mesher says. "I kind of had tunnel vision for a bit." Several of her teachers at Pace were former Rockettes. Still, there wasn't anyone like her who had done it before to show that it was possible.
"I'D GET THERE at least two hours early to line up. I wanted to make sure I was in the first group," Mesher says of her Rockettes audition process. "I have the mentality that if I'm going to get cut, I want to get cut first. Then I have the rest of my day." A basic classic Rockettes combination is rapidly taught, then performed in smaller groups. The people at the front of the room confer and cut dancers. The process repeats with a jazz combination, a tap combo and then another jazz number with more specific stylization, with cuts made all the way through. "It's your career at stake," Mesher says, "and this is such a dream for so many people, myself included." Roughly 40 of the 400 to 500 women who waited in line are still standing. They're sent home with instructions to return the next day for callbacks.
That day is shorter but in many ways more intense. Those auditioning repeat the combinations from the previous day, with the added pressure of knowing the artistic staff is looking at whether they've retained the corrections and details they've already been given. They'll then learn a new combination or add material to one they already know. A few more cuts are made, and then it's down to the remaining women -- usually around 20 -- who are told they'll get a call in the next couple of weeks.
Mesher first auditioned in April 2018, toward the end of her junior year at Pace University. "I was just going in to see how I would do," she says of that tryout. "I know that it takes most girls a couple of years to get this job, so I wanted to start making that work happen before I graduated." She had already begun forging that relationship the previous summer, when she first attended the Rockettes Summer Intensive to train with the troupe's artistic staff.
"I like to see women evolve a little bit in the audition process," says Karen Keeler, the troupe's creative director, "whether that's through several different auditions or just from the day and the callbacks."
Much to Mesher's surprise, she made it through to the final round of callbacks her first time out. She didn't book the gig, but "getting all the way through was a huge honor. I never went in expecting to get that far."
"Sydney instantly had a keen understanding of the precision and consistency required of this work," Keeler recalls. "She was willing to give it everything she had."
Encouraged by receiving a callback, Mesher attended the Rockettes Summer Intensive for a second time. Then she auditioned again, just before the start of her senior year. She didn't get the offer that time either, but it was all going according to plan. "I wanted to get my degree, and then I wanted to become a Rockette," she says.
At the end of this past January, Mesher broke her foot while dancing when she landed a jump wrong. The injury required surgery, crutches and a boot and kept her out of the studio for four months during her final semester of college.
While this was far from Mesher's first significant injury -- during her senior year of high school, she cracked her L4 vertebrae and had two herniated disks -- it was, she says, by far the most challenging.
"It was one of the darkest places in my life," Mesher says.
"You're on crutches, and being on crutches in New York City when it's snowing and freezing out, it was challenging even just to go outside. I tried to avoid moving unless I had to."
Complicating matters were the crutches themselves.
"That was one of the first times in my life that I really faced adversity with my hand -- having to hop and being able to only use one hand," Mesher says. "I had to figure things out in a different way." And there was an emotional toll in being unable to do what she loves and watching her friends perform their senior solos.
"But I came out determined," Mesher says. She worked with a personal trainer to do everything she could to keep the rest of her body in dancing shape and began physical therapy on her foot earlier than was required. The next New York audition for the Rockettes was in April. She wasn't out of her boot in time for that one, so instead, she went to Atlanta at the beginning of May. "I did the audition two weeks out of my boot," Mesher says. "Looking back at it now, that was absolutely insane." Audition No. 3 didn't yield a spot, so after graduating with her bachelor's degree, she headed back for her third round at the Rockettes Summer Intensive.
Audition No. 4 was in New York in August, and Mesher once again made it to the final round.
Keeler is in the habit of sleeping on the final decision, waiting until she knows in her gut that she's making the right call about whom to hire. After Mesher's audition, Keeler kept thinking about how she executed the choreography, how she handled herself and how she came back better each day. "I knew she was ready for this challenge," Keeler says.
Mesher got the call while visiting her parents in Portland. She and her mom were in separate cars in a parking garage, on their way to work out in the same facility where she had grown up taking dance classes. "It was like a movie moment," Mesher says. "We ran to meet each other in the middle. I completely lost it. I started bawling and ran into my mother's arms."
Four auditions, three summer intensives and one broken foot later, she was going to be a Rockette.
BEING A RADIO City Rockette is one of the most coveted jobs in dance. There are 80 spots on the line -- two casts of 36, with four swings/dance captains for each. For the auditions held every April and August in New York, the line of hopefuls wraps around the building, located in Rockefeller Center. In total, roughly 1,000 women auditioned this season. Only 13 of those were offered positions, including Mesher, and that number is unusually high.
As if that weren't enough, some determining factors are out of the dancers' control. For example, the Rockettes won't consider anyone shorter than 5-foot-6 or taller than 5-10½, and the gradation of heights in the line is carefully controlled to create the optical illusion that the women are of identical size. No matter how well you perform or how much those making the decisions like you, you can lose out on the job simply because there aren't any open slots for someone your height that season.
"When you commit to being a Rockette, you have to give up wanting to be a soloist or a star," Keeler says. "You have to know that the whole is more important."
Uniformity is the name of the game, and something as seemingly insignificant as a chin tipped at not quite the right angle can throw off a performance. The choreography dictates even the speed at which the dancers flick their fingertips. Those missing inches at the end of Mesher's left arm, in other words, could have presented a sticking point.
It's not, however, an impediment to Mesher's ability to do the steps. "I'm not the type of person who would audition if I didn't think I was capable," she says. "The last thing I wanted to do was have people make alterations for me." Challenging as it is, the choreography for the Rockettes is almost entirely self-contained. And Mesher has nearly two decades of experience making whatever small adjustments she needs to in order to smooth and disguise the difference. "This is all I've ever known," she says.
Since becoming a Rockette, Mesher has received emails and direct messages on Instagram from families that have found out about her through the Lucky Fin Project. The nonprofit works to raise awareness about and celebrate those with symbrachydactyly or other limb differences. The organization posts her show schedule for community members who want to take their children with such disabilities to see Mesher perform. "I try to meet them outside after the show and get a picture with them," Mesher says.
Lucky Fin also helped make it possible for a young fan born with one hand to meet Seattle Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin last year. "It brings people [together] who are going through the same things and makes it more normal," Mesher says. "I wish it was something I'd known about growing up."
Mesher is becoming the role model for dance that she didn't have growing up. But her feelings about being seen as a symbol for the disability community are complicated. "I do have things that have made my life more challenging," she says. "I sometimes struggle with tying my shoes, but in the grand scheme of things, that's not really a big challenge. I have an issue with acting as if I've gone through this incredibly hard life."
MESHER'S INTERPRETATION OF the choreography is the same as that of her fellow Rockettes. The only tweaks are to the props and wardrobe. She carries one set of bells instead of two for an act. And Mesher worked with the props team at the beginning of the season to make it easier for her to carry and dance with a large toy block for a scene set in Santa's workshop. If she's wearing gloves in an act, the material is adjusted to fit over her left arm. The left sleeve has been shortened on costumes as well. "I don't think of Sydney in any other way than being a talented young woman who got hired as a Rockette," Keeler says. If the steps call for the dancers to wave at the audience with their left hand, Mesher extends her arm and waves.
During the first night of preview performances, Mesher's parents and sister overheard a person in the row behind them pointing out "the girl with one hand."
After the show, they realized that the person who had been whispering had brought a young girl to the performance who also had one hand. They brought her to the stage door to meet Mesher after the show.
"It's all about the next family," Page says. "Somewhere out there, there's a little girl like Sydney who dreams of being a Rockette, and when she puts her head down at night, she's got doubts. 'Can I really do it?'
"They're going to see the Rockettes maybe, and maybe Syd will meet them, and that little girl is going to realize, 'I can do it too. I'll fight through all the tough things. But nobody can tell me no.' "
Courtney Escoyne is a Brooklyn-based dance writer. She received a bachelor of fine arts in dance from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She is an associate editor at Dance Magazine and has written for Time Out New York, Pointe and The Stewardship Report.