History’s First Black Rockette is Alive and Kickin’
She’s long, lithe, lovely, and all smiles when we recently chatted with Jennifer Jones via Zoom in her New Jersey home. She’s wildly in love, very recently married for the sweeter second time around. Her memoir, “Becoming Spectacular,” will be published by Harper Collins in 2024, and the screenplay is well underway. Her children’s book, “On the Line: The Story of the First African American Rockette,” also being published by Harper Collins, is scheduled to launch October 31 of this year, accompanied by a collectible doll resembling the author.
And a few years ago at age 50, doctors told Jennifer Jones she had just five years to live.
A routine colonoscopy revealed that Jones, who joined the Rockettes at age 20 as the first Black woman in the iconic lineup, had Stage III colorectal cancer. Jones was then as she is now devoted to health and well-being, inside and out. In fact, she was vegetarian at the time of her shocking diagnosis. After leaving the Rockettes following a glamorous 15-year run, she opened her own aerobics studio, Jennifer Jones Dance and Fitness Center in Rockaway, New Jersey, and always stayed in shape, sculpting her long limbs and sleek torso with hot yoga, running, walking and busting a righteous sweat at the gym.
Initially, she says “The white male doctor I had didn’t really tell me much, and the oncologist left me a voice mail. Not much communication. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. For a while there, I told no one. When I finally did tell my family, they all said that I needed to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering. They were right.” Two women –surgeon Iris Wei, M.D. and oncologist Elizabeth Won, M.D. — approached her recovery with an attitude of intimacy and transparency. Colectomy surgery (re-sectioning of a segment of the colon) and eight rounds of chemo were successful, leaving Jones symptom-free, and without need for a dreaded colostomy bag. Today she says, “As soon as I open my eyes in the morning, I thank spirit for another day.”
She laughs a generous laugh that’s pure sunshine as she points to her hair, a gorgeous tangle of natural ringlets that reveals a few inches of silver at the scalp: she’s given up coloring her tresses as part of reclaiming her most authentic life. The smile and laughter are real, and hard-won. From the beginning, the Rockettes organization resisted her presence as a Black dancer, even after she was hired at debut at the 1988 San Diego Super Bowl half-time show. Prior to hiring Jones, Rockettes were forbidden to suntan, and often were required to apply pale pancake makeup to their legs. Upon her arrival in San Diego for her debut performance in 1988, Jones recalls that she was whisked into a meeting with a PR person for the troupe who told her, “You’re old news already, and nobody cares about you.”
Jones says, “I carried the pain of that remark with me for years. I didn’t know the history of the Rockettes when I first auditioned. I was just a Jersey girl who wanted to dance on Broadway. When I was hired as the First African American Rockette, I was immediately thrown into media training by Radio City PR. I was brought into a meeting by the PR team and the director/ choreographer, Violet Holmes. They went out of their way to tell me she was misquoted in a New York Times article a few years back. I didn’t read the article until years later. At the time, I believed what they told me. On my press tour I was asked about Violet’s quote repeatedly; my answer was she was misquoted, even though I didn’t know what was said.”
In 1987, a year before Jones was hired, The New York Times published the following comment: “As recently as five years ago, the director of the Rockettes, Violet Holmes, defended the all-white line on artistic grounds. She said that the dancers were supposed to be ‘mirror images’ of each other, and added: ‘One or two black girls in the line would definitely distract. You would lose the whole look of precision, which is the hallmark of the Rockettes.’”
Jones got hate mail. “Some letters said I would be ruining their Christmas tradition of seeing the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. Some letters said they would no longer go to see the show because of me. It stung.”
But you know show-people: they smile when they are low. She’s not bitter. She says, “My love of dance, and New York City, and my love for Radio City Music Hall, the best theatre on earth, and walking out of the backstage door is what kept me afloat in difficult times.”
As part of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, Jones recently danced in the video for the new single, “New Bloom,” (see Jones in the sunshine-yellow dress!) for saxophonist James Casey of the Trey Anastasio Band, who’s a fellow survivor of colon cancer after being diagnosed with stage III at the age of 38. Jones has never gotten over seeing Hinton Battle in “The Wiz” five times, and is optimistic about the future of diversity and equity at the Madison Square Garden organization which owns Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes. She says, “I always remembered my childhood dream: I wanted to dance, be on stage, and walk out of a backstage door. I was living my dream. If me being a Rockette ruined their Christmas tradition, maybe they should go find another Christmas tradition.”