Meet the Black dancer who broke the Rockettes' color barrier

She is the Rockettes' Jackie Robinson.

In 1988, Jennifer Jones broke a 63-year color barrier that was there by tradition and design to keep dancers of color out of the famed Radio City Music Hall kickline. Her arrival was met with pushback, something that, 34 years later, still brings tears.

The Rockettes have taken strides to make their kickline more diverse, to "look more like America," with outreach to find new Rockettes from diverse backgrounds. The effort is designed to create a pipeline of top dancers, including dancers of color who see the Rockettes as a viable career path, no longer the realm of white dancers alone. That flow of dancers began with a single drop, a single dancer, Jennifer Jones.

Her desire to dance was lit early, but not by the Rockettes.

When Booker T. Jones met Linda Lourie on the job at the Sip & Sup in Morris Plains, New Jersey (“Where the Right Crowd Meets To Eat”), he was a dishwasher and she was a waitress. This was the mid-'60s. They dated for a year before Linda, who is white, told her parents about Booker, who is Black.

Interracial marriage was not legal in all 50 states until 1967, with the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, "so this was a kind of a taboo relationship,” Jones said.

Booker and Linda would see all the Broadway shows. When “The Wiz” — a retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” through a Black lens — leaped onto Broadway in 1975, they bought tickets. Repeatedly.

“They took me and my sister five times,” Jones said. “And that was when I really identified in seeing people of color on stage. We would wait at the backstage door for the actors to come out — Andre DeShields, Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle — and get their autographs. I was like, ‘I want to come out of that backstage door one day.’ That was a dream and a goal of mine.”

She started dancing at 7, in Hillside, New Jersey, before the family moved to Randolph, in Morris County, and she began studying in Dover, with trips to New York City master classes taught by jazz dance legend Frank Hatchett. It was there she learned how to master dance combinations quickly.

She took a break from dance when her parents divorced when she was in high school, but she yearned to return to it. She tried community college; the fit wasn’t right. Two years out of high school, she found herself at Broadway Dance Center on West 45th Street, taking classes and waiting each Thursday for Backstage magazine to arrive with audition notices.

In October 1987, the Rockettes did something they rarely did: They held an October audition, for dancers to perform at the Super Bowl in San Diego. And the ad in Backstage — the one Jones skipped over because she wanted to be a Broadway dancer — said something the Rockettes never said: “Minority dancers are encouraged to audition.”

A friend pointed out the ad to Jones and said she should try out.

“I've never seen the Rockettes,” she recalled. “I've heard of them, but I didn't know what they did.”

'They're never going to pick me'

The day of the audition, the 20-year-old arrived at Radio City to see a line snaking down the block “with the most beautiful, long-legged Rockette hopefuls that knew how to cut their hair, who knew how to do their lipstick.”

She took a spot at the end of the line and soon regretted it.

“I said: ‘They're never going to pick me. I don't see anyone like me on the line.’ And Frank Hatchette was teaching my favorite jazz class, and I thought about leaving. Something inside me just said, stay. And I did.”

Standing in that line, she didn’t know that Rockettes founder Russell Markert had forbidden his white dancers to get suntans, lest audiences think they were Black. Or that director Violet Holmes — the woman for whom she was about to audition — had said that “artistically, it makes sense for all the Rockettes to be white because they're supposed to be mirror images of each other.”

She remembers everything about that audition, the info card she filled out, and not having a headshot and resume, and having brought the wrong shoes.

“I got this hot feeling, like all eyes were on me,” she recalled.

Rockettes director Holmes taught the audition combination.

“Violet never counted ‘Five, six, seven, eight,’” to start a combination as most dance teachers do. “She counted. Ba-deedalee-dee, ba-deedalee-dah, ba-deedalee-deedalee-dah. That's how she would teach her combinations. I did the combination, she broke it down and they thanked us.”

The stage manager approached her. “Jennifer, we're going to give you a call back," he said. "Bring your picture and resume and bring your tap shoes.”

In an age before computers, she dashed home to Randolph, got an old modeling photo, cobbled together a resume. She grabbed her tap shoes and went to the callback, where there was just one other woman of color, who was dancing on Broadway at the time. They did the callback. “They said, ‘Thank you.’ And that was it. That was my audition.”

Of the 221 dancers to audition, 23 were chosen for future hiring. One was the young Black woman from New Jersey who dreamed of coming out of a stage door.

Violet Holmes called a few days later to say: “We’d like to offer you the Super Bowl halftime show performance.”

Flustered, Jones asked if she could call Holmes right back. “I needed time to process,” she remembered. She called back and said she’d love to do the Super Bowl halftime show. But she didn’t hear back anything official.

A few days later, Sue Simmons 11 p.m. newscast on WNBC-TV mentioned that Radio City had just hired its first Black Rockette.

“I said, ‘I wonder who that is.’ My mother called. ‘Jennifer, is that you?’ And I didn’t know. Nobody said anything. That’s how I found out eventually that I was the first one.”

After she was cast, the Rockettes gave her tickets to the Spectacular, “so I could see what they did,” she said.

A milestone, and backlash

“The Super Bowl was very exciting for me, but with Black progress, there's also backlash,” said Jones, 55, who calls West Orange, New Jersey, home.

On the flight to San Diego, the assistant to the Rockettes PR director approached Jones, saying his boss wanted Jones to come to her hotel room. When Jones arrived at the room, the woman who ran PR had a message for the first Black Rockette.

“She told me: ‘You're old news, nobody cares about you, your story or anything about you. You're just lucky to be here,’” Jones said, dabbing at tears. “And I carried that with me for years. And I felt that way for years. I thought nobody cared.

"So I did not realize that I was making a difference in someone else's lives.”

The next season, she was hired as a fill-in for during the Spectacular, and performed on the Radio City stage.

"I got so much love from across the country from the African-American community," she said. “They said it was about time that the color line had been broken, that they would bring their families to see the Christmas show. It was something new for them. I don’t think a lot of African-American families would come see the Christmas show.”

Not everyone was as welcoming, as Jones revealed in a 2021 interview with Rockette Danelle Morgan — who is also Black and also from New Jersey (Highland Park) — on the Rockettes Youtube channel.

When Jones approached her dresser to ask if she could have tights that matched her skin tone, “she yelled at me that they’re not changing the costumes for anybody and that’s what you get.”

The woman continued to yell, as Jones got dressed, checked her makeup and got on the elevator to take her place on stage for the start of the show.

“I still heard her yelling that this was the costume and I was never going to get tights that color,” she said.

Contrast that with Morgan’s experience. At costume fittings now, Rockettes of color are shown an array of swatches and can choose tights and headpieces and mesh panels that match their particular skin tones. Their shoes are handpainted to match their skin color, completing the look from head to toe.

No wave followed

It has been 34 years since Jones first danced with the Rockettes, but her arrival didn’t usher in a wave of dancers of color to the Christmas Spectacular. In this year’s Rockette ranks, 12 of the 84 are dancers of color: there are seven Black Rockettes, three Asian American Pacific Islander Rockettes and two Hispanic Rockettes.

That works out to 14% of the line being dancers of color, while the 2020 Census recorded the U.S. population was 36% Black, Hispanic and AAPI.

“It does surprise me,” Jones said. “I don't know if it's because, like me, I wasn't going to go to the Rockette audition because I didn't see anyone like me. Or that my parents didn't take me to see the Rockettes. I don't know if the Rockettes prior mentality, the stigma, is still with them and they don't want to become a part of that legacy. I wish there were more.”

She said she sees the strides the Rockettes have made and hopes that the efforts the Rockettes are making to diversify the line succeed, that "they can get there.”

“There” is the sisterhood of the Rockettes, an experience Jones said she wouldn’t change for the world.

“I've made great friendships and the women of color have formed a bond that is strong, that's loving, that's enduring, and a safe place where we can go to share anything personal or professional,” she said. “I just feel extremely, extremely blessed to have that experience and usher in a whole diversity of women who want to be on that line.”

Jones has stories to tell. She'll chronicle her journey in two upcoming books from publisher HarperCollins: Her children's book, "On the Line," is due out next fall; her memoir, "Becoming Spectacular," is due in 2024.

And what of Jones’ dream to walk out of a stage door after performing on Broadway?

It became reality soon after she left the Rockettes. In 2001, she danced in the tap-happy revival of “42nd Street.”

This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Jennifer Jones, first Black Rockette, has stories to tell