On The Line: An Interview with Jennifer Jones

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On The Line: An Interview with Jennifer Jones

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From studying dance to making history as the first Black woman to join the world-renowned dance group The Rockettes, the Broadway star shares her story.   

Born and raised in New Jersey, Jennifer Jones grew up on Broadway. Between studying dance and frequenting the theater district with her musical theater-loving parents, Jennifer was never a stranger to the stage. 

But it wasn’t until her parents took her to see The Wiz that Jennifer really knew what she wanted to do. After the performance, she and her family waited by the stage door to get autographs from the actors and as she “watched the performers emerge through that enchanting door, something clicked”. Her sights now set firmly on Broadway, Jennifer eventually moved to the city in full pursuit of her dream. But what happened next was unexpected: a chance audition led to a historic career as a Radio City Rockette. Thirty-five years later and we have a Barbie doll on the horizon as well as Jennifer’s first book release. A children’s book, ON THE LINE: My Story of Becoming the First African American Rockette, is now available in bookstores and online. 

Just in time for the holidays, we sat down with Jennifer to learn more about her fascinating journey and all things Rockette. 

On The Line: An Interview with Jennifer Jones
In 1987, Jennifer Jones became the first African American Radio City Music Hall Rockette.

How did you get your start as a Rockette?

Jennifer Jones: When I embarked on my journey to become a Broadway star, I was still a novice; naive and inexperienced. I was studying dance at Broadway Dance Center in NYC. Auditioning, knowing how to dress appropriately and understanding the sign-in process were all new concepts to me. My peers and I would eagerly search through Backstage, looking for that one big break that would launch our careers.

During this time, there was an advertisement from the Rockettes casting for two shows: the Super Bowl XXII Halftime show and the Chita Rivera tour. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to it since I wasn’t familiar with the Rockettes and they weren’t involved directly in Broadway productions. However, one of my friends encouraged me to give it a shot, insisting that I would make a perfect Rockette. Although I remained unsure, I spontaneously went on the day of the audition. I thought it would be a good experience to get used to the auditioning.

Arriving at the Music Hall, I saw a line of incredibly stunning women wrapped around the Music Hall. Doubt began to creep in and I entertained the idea of leaving several times. Just as I was on the verge of leaving, a voice within me–so clear and loud that I wondered if others could hear it too–told me, stay. I decided to trust my instincts and embrace the opportunity before me.

I settled at the end of the line and prepared myself mentally. This experience became more than just an audition; it was a chance to grow as a performer and conquer my nerves. Little did I know then, staying in line would prove to be a pivotal moment in my journey.

Prior to joining The Rockettes, what was your awareness of them?

JJ: I had no prior knowledge of the Rockettes, their work, or their history. However, when I was selected for a role, my parents gave me tickets to see the Christmas Show. It was during this experience that I saw the Rockettes for the first time, and the sheer magnificence of witnessing them perform on the grand Radio City Music Hall stage was truly awe-inspiring. The costumes, the glamour, the dazzling lights—it felt like stepping into a magical world.

On The Line: An Interview with Jennifer Jones
Rockette Jennifer Jones backstage at Radio City in her costume for the "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" opening number.

How did you feel about the attention you received after becoming the first Black Rockette?

JJ: I am proud to say that I had the opportunity to open doors for other African American women as the first African American Rockette. It was a truly empowering experience, and I will forever cherish the support I received from the Black community, people across the country and those in the arts. The amount of mail I received, filled with gratitude and well wishes, was overwhelming and deeply touching.

However, with great change often comes great resistance. I wasn’t fully prepared for some of the backlash that came my way. It was disheartening to face opposition after working so hard to make a positive impact and break down barriers. But I didn’t let it deter me. Pushing boundaries and challenging societal norms can be met with resistance and I am and have been committed to continuing on this path. I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned along this journey and for the strength and resilience I’ve developed. 

Do you have any favorite memories from your time with the Rockettes?

JJ: Being a Rockette holds so many cherished memories for me. One of my favorite parts was being in the large rehearsal hall during Christmas, learning the intricate Rockette numbers. The live music that accompanied our rehearsals created an electric atmosphere, and the sound of tap shoes against the wooden floor brought a sense of rhythm and excitement. Walking in and out of the stage door at Radio City Music Hall always filled me with a sense of pride and excitement.

Standing on stage and looking out into the grandeur of the theater was truly awe-inspiring. The magic of being backstage and on stage is indescribable. I loved every moment, from getting fitted for costumes tailored just for me to the adrenaline rush of performing.

But what truly made it all worthwhile was the impact we had on the audience. Walking home after a performance, I remember seeing children in the audience with wide eyes and a sense of wonder. It reminded me that what we did on that stage was pure magic, bringing joy and creating memories that would last a lifetime. I have always aimed to motivate and encourage children in the same way that The Wiz performers inspired me.

The Rockettes are so synonymous with the holidays in NYC. What do you personally love about the holiday season in NYC?

JJ: I thoroughly enjoy the holiday season in NYC because it provides me with an opportunity to bond with my fellow Rockettes sisters. It has become a tradition for the alumni to receive tickets to watch the Christmas Show, allowing us to reconnect and recall our time on the line. 

The Rockefeller Christmas Tree is an absolute marvel that one cannot miss. Taking a stroll down Fifth Avenue, admiring the festive window displays, and stepping inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral are all delightful experiences. Whenever I enter the cathedral, I make sure to take a moment to offer prayers of gratitude to my ancestors, parents, and family members who have played a significant role in shaping my remarkable journey through life.

On The Line: An Interview with Jennifer Jones
Rockette Jennifer Jones.

When did the idea for your children’s book ON THE LINE, My Story of Becoming the First African American Rockette first come to you?

JJ: The inspiration for my children’s book, stemmed from my literary agent, Johanna Castillo. Initially, I had just planned to write a memoir but she encouraged me to explore the realm of children’s literature and create an uplifting book. I am truly grateful for her guidance as it proved to be a wonderful decision. The feedback I have received thus far has been overwhelmingly positive, with both parents and children expressing their enjoyment of the book. It fills me with joy to know that it has resonated with so many people and I am especially delighted to hear that certain parts and illustrations have become favorites among readers.

What was the process of co-writing something inspired by your own story?

JJ: Lissette Norman, a talented children’s book writer, possesses a remarkable ability to convey ideas in a way that both captures a child’s understanding and maintains their interest. Working with her was truly therapeutic, as I realized the immense impact my parents had on equipping me with the necessary tools for self-expression. The process of creating this book was truly wonderful and rewarding.

What do you hope children reading your book take from it?

JJ: There are so many lessons within the book, I hope at least one of these resonates with them. Firstly, my journey showcases the importance of perseverance. It teaches children to never give up on their dreams, even when faced with challenges or setbacks. By highlighting the hard work, determination and positive mindset, children can learn that they have the power to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. Secondly, my experience as the first African American Rockette emphasizes the significance of diversity and inclusion. It encourages children to celebrate and embrace people from different backgrounds, appreciating the unique talents and perspectives that individuals bring to any field or endeavor. Thirdly, this lesson encourages children to break free from limiting societal expectations and pursue their passions and interests….These are just a few of the valuable lessons that I hope children and adults can take away.

I hear you have a Barbie doll on the horizon.

JJ: Yes, exciting news! Dancing Jenn launched on Thanksgiving Day. I couldn’t be more thrilled about this project. Dancing Jenn serves as a beautiful reminder to children that they should always pursue their dreams and strive for greatness in everything they do. It teaches them that thoughts can manifest into reality. My hope is that when children read On the Line, they will find Dancing Jenn to be an inspiring and positive role model. Additionally, I am excited to announce that an On the Line coloring book will also be released soon, allowing children to bring their favorite illustrations to life with colors of their own choosing.

WORDS Hillary Sproul

FEATURED IMAGE: The Rockettes, 1983, in a scene from the Radio City Music Hall revue “5-6-7-8- Dance!.” The New York Public Library Digital Collection. Archival imagery courtesy of Jennifer Jones 

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