NJ Starz: Jennifer Jones Hometown: RandolphApr 12, 2022 05:23PM ● By Joe Nicastro
Jennifer Jones recalls the night vividly.
“Sue Simmons came on the 11 o'clock news, and she said, ‘Radio City Music Hall has just hired their first African American dancer to be a Rockette.” I said to myself, ‘I wonder who that is?’ And it was me! They didn’t tell me that I was the first one.”
The year was 1987, and Jones was invited to be on field during the Super Bowl XXII halftime show. The game, a Washington Redskins 42 – 10 win over the Denver Broncos, was somewhat forgettable, but Jones taking part in the intermission was news, and it led to, in her words, “15 years with the Rockettes, and then I did Broadway after that, so it was a beautiful 20 year professional dancing experience.”
“I was mostly raised in Randolph,” says Jones, who was born in Newark on August 1, 1967. “I went to sixth grade there, but we moved there a year before, when I attended The Pingry School in Basking Ridge for one year, and then I went to Randolph schools, from where I graduated high school and then eventually attended CCM (County College of Morris).”
Jones was a trailblazer, and she followed in her parents’ footsteps. “I'm biracial; my mother (Linda Lourie, originally from Rockaway) is white, my father (Booker T. Jones, born in Saint Louis, Missouri) is black, and they got together in the 1960s when that wasn't fondly looked upon, an interracial relationship.” Jones is the middle child of three sisters. Her older sibling is Kara, and the younger is Patricia. “But we call her ‘Peaches,’” Jones says.
Jones enjoyed her time in Randolph. “Of course, it’s a great educational system that they have there, which is one of the reasons why my parents moved there, but there was some racial tension. My sister and I were in the minority group. There were some hard times, but I have a great core friends. We actually just went to St. Augustine last September, just the five of us, after we hadn't seen each other in over 20 years, and it was like we picked up from yesterday, like we never left off.”
After high school, Jones went to CCM and originally applied to be a business major with the notion that she would open up a dance studio. However, the urge was there to be a dancer, so she changed her major to dance. The love of that art had been instilled in her at a young age. “My parents started me dancing when I was around five or six,” Jones says. “They had combined dance classes; it was like tap with gymnastics. All I can remember is that I loved the way the sound the tap made against the linoleum floor. There was something about that sound that I loved, so much so that my parents got linoleum flooring in the basement, just a piece of it. My father's office was down in the basement, and whenever he was down there working from home, I would go down with my tap shoes on and just tap-tap-tap. He never complained once, if you can imagine that.”
While at CCM, Jones was very busy. In addition to her studies, she was part of a modern dance company called “Beyond the New Jersey Turnpike”, which was eventually shortened years later to just “Beyond”, and she was also trekking to the Broadway Dance Center in New York City, where Frank Hatchett was her mentor. “I was really big into jazz because I was going to be a Broadway star,” she says. Again, it was her parents that opened her and her sisters’ world up to the beauty of performance. “Our parents took us to Broadway all the time, and I saw The Wiz five times. And then we would wait backstage after the show at the stage door and get autographs, and I knew one day I wanted to walk out of that backstage door. I didn't know how or anything, but all I knew is I wanted to be the one walking out. So my goal was to be on Broadway. And to me, I equated Broadway with jazz dancing, and so I took ballet for the technique, which is the core of any type of dancing, and I took some tap classes. So I was going back and forth between CCM and New York, taking classes, learning the art of auditioning and how to find an audition. I also started making friends in the city, and I had one friend who knew a lot of Broadway people, and I started meeting people.”
Then in 1987, when searching through an industry publication for dance roles, Jones bypassed a printed mention of an open audition for the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. A friend encouraged her to attend that audition, telling her she’d be a perfect Rockette. Jones, not envisioning being chosen and a bit hesitant, eventually convinced herself to go. “I wasn’t even going to go to the audition. I was always nervous at auditions. So I thought I would go and try to clean up some of the cobwebs, get better at auditioning.” When she arrived, the line was wrapped around Radio City Music Hall, and she thought, ‘Maybe I should just go take my Frank Hatchett class.’ Instead she remained, and was taken with a group to a rehearsal hall. “They put us in a line. I was stretching, and it was very intimidating. Everyone was beautiful and had long legs, and I thought, ‘Just let me get through this audition.’” After being measured for the approved Rockette height, she made the cut and headed to the floor for a tap routine – in character shoes. “When it was over, I was going to the back of the room to get my bag, and the stage manager came up to me, and he said, ‘Jennifer, we're going to give you a call back. Bring your tap shoes and bring your picture and resume.”
She went to the call back, and sealed the deal. Jones recalls, “I think it was just maybe a few months later that Violet Holmes, the choreographer at the time, called me and she asked me if I wanted to do the Super Bowl halftime show. That's when I accepted the her offer.”
And then the NBC News broadcast with Sue Simmons. “My mother called me and she said, ‘Jennifer is that you?!’ and I said, ‘I don't know.’ Nobody said anything, only later to find out that it was me.” Jones was then put through media training, given mock interviews to get used to the real interviews that she would eventually do as the first official African American Radio City Rockette.
Another one of Jones’s proudest Rockette moments is when she performed at the Tony Awards in the Broadway revival of 42nd Street in 2001. The ensemble won the Tony Award that same night for Best Revival of a Musical. Jones was also the first African American Miss Morris County (1989), owned and operated the Jennifer Jones Dance and Fitness Studio in Rockaway from 1990 – 1993, and was the first to kick off CCM’s “I Got It Right” billboard campaign.
Jones, who retired in 2002 and is a member of the Rockette Alumnae Association as well as the Rockettes of Color Alumnae, is currently married to husband Jeffrey DeBarbieri, and has two children, Zachary and Isabella. She is a happy and grateful woman, and has funneled that gratitude towards awareness in a worthwhile initiative that for her hits very close to home. She explains. “I wake up grateful every morning. In 2018 I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. I was healthy my entire life: I had a professional dancing career, and I was vegetarian for over 20 years. And when I was diagnosed it was, first of all, a surprise.” Jones went through eight rounds of chemotherapy, and then had surgery the end of 2018. “In 2019 I was deemed cancer free, and I've been cancer free ever since. I went to Memorial Sloan Kettering and had an almost all-female team, which makes it very comfortable for me to speak about it, and I do a lot of work with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. I do speaking engagements about colorectal cancer and awareness, and try to spread the word that the colonoscopy age has lowered to 45 instead of 50. So, I wake up grateful every morning, first of all for my health, for having a roof over my head, for having food on the table, for my family, for my children, for my parents, and for my job.”
Her colorectal cancer battle and survival has redirected how she wants to live her life – a life that continues to be filled with good things. “I have a children's book coming out the end of the year,” Jones says, “and I have my memoir that will be coming out in 2023, and various other projects that I'm working on. I'm able to shift focus to things that will benefit me and hopefully benefit others.”
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Jones