Courtesy of Jennifer Jones

“I’m here to dance. I’m here to work through my nerves. I’m here to work through any intimidations that may creep up during auditions. I just went to get better at auditioning basically,” Jennifer Jones explained her mindset going into her Rockettes audition in 1987. This was only Jennifer’s second professional audition, and one with higher stakes than 20-year-old Jennifer knew until after she’d secured her spot on the line.

At the time, Jennifer was training at Broadway Dance Center under Frank Hatchett and training to fulfill a long-held childhood dream to be a Broadway star. Finding the Rockette audition in Backstage before class was kind of an accident. “I was looking for my big Broadway break, and the Rockettes audition was there, and I blew by it because I did not know who the Rockettes were,” she shared. Luckily, a friend told Jennifer she would make a perfect Rockette, and she decided to go for it, at least for practice.

Courtesy of Jennifer Jones

Meanwhile, the world was scrutinizing the Radio City Rockettes for their lack of diversity. Since 1925, founder Russell Markert insisted that every dancer on the line needed to be white so they could be mirror images of one another. The NAACP and the New York City Council’s Black and Hispanic Caucus were calling for a change in the line. Jennifer auditioned alongside 221 other women–she remembers seeing only one other Black dancer there who called her to congratulate her later–for 26 open spots. “When I auditioned, I did not know the history. I did not know what the Rockettes did. I didn’t know anything about the Rockettes.” This may have been to her advantage. She didn’t have anything to prove except a love of dance and an intense desire to be on stage, but by making the cut and crossing the color barrier, she made a difference for so many dancers who would come after her.

Jennifer will certainly go down in history as the first Black Rockette, but it’s only part of her story. A dancer who not only made great strides for dancers of color, Jennifer has gone on to lead a career in inspiring people to do whatever it is that draws them. She remembers being a little girl obsessed with The Wiz, a classic Broadway show that her parents took her and her sisters to see an extraordinary five times, and waiting starstruck at the stage door to meet Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle, and Mabel King. “At such a young age, I didn’t know what steps to take or how I was going to get there, but it was definitely something I wanted to do with my life,” she said. When she achieved her dreams on stage, as a Rockette and later on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning revival of 42nd Street, she knew she was opening doors for dancers who looked like her to achieve great things.

If we flash back to young Jennifer, obsessed with all things dance, we can see her on stage for her fourth-grade recital. That performance was an “ah ha!” moment. “That was when I fell in love with the stage, the audience, the applause, and even the preparation leading up to our performance,” Jennifer remembered. Fourth-grade Jennifer’s dreams came true on January 31, 1988, when Jennifer made her Rockette debut during the Super Bowl XXII halftime show. “It was nerve-wracking because I had to learn a 12-minute number. I had to learn Rockette precision, Rockette technique, and formations,” she said. “It was my first national, big job, and I’m the first.” The 12-minute performance featured 1,200 performers, which included 44 Rockettes, 400 swing band members, 300 Jazzercisers, 88 tuxedoed pianists simultaneously playing on 88 grand pianos, and two college marching bands. What a debut.

There was, of course, the pressure of being a first, but Jennifer remembers finding her people and sticking with them and being guided by the structured way that the Rockettes have always managed interviews with their dancers. She was there to dance, and that was what mattered most to her. “My feeling was I always wanted to dance. I always wanted to be on a stage with the lights, the costumes, the lashes, the red lips, and no one was allowed to take that away from me, so first of all I had that. I had my passion.” With that behind her, she could become the role model and icon she is today.

A champion of diversity in the arts, Jennifer celebrated seeing other dancers of color join her on the line over her 15-year tenure with the Rockettes. She also loves seeing how new choreographers have slowly evolved what the Rockettes do and how we can track those changes and meet those dancers via social media. She shared that she thinks Russell Markert would be proud of the line. “I think he would be proud of the different ethnicities and cultures that are represented for all little girls who dream of becoming Rockettes. They can see someone on stage and say, ‘That looks like me, and that’s possible.'”

Knowing what’s possible is Jennifer’s brand. Last fall, she released her first book On the Line: My Journey of Becoming the First African American Rockette, an autobiographical children’s book. She also released a Dancing Jenn doll. These two items are artifacts of Jennifer’s journey, but more than anything, they’re her effort to show people that the biggest part of any journey is trying. “I feel that it’s so important that people move out of their comfort zone,” she said. “It’s so easy to be content and not push the boundaries. I just feel like the world has so much to offer, and I think some people get scared…If you have backup, if someone says, ‘I have your back. Just go try it,’ you’re more willing to go for it. If I can be someone’s back so they can come back and say, ‘It worked,’ or ‘It didn’t work,’ at least you tried. Live life without regret. Live life without should’ve would’ve could’ve. At least you tried. I’ve had people say, ‘Jennifer, go try it. I have your back,’ and I think that can make all the difference in the world for someone trying something and not saying something.” If nothing else, whatever your dreams, know that Jennifer Jones has your back.

Recently, Jennifer has been visiting schools to read her book to children. For some, this is a first introduction to the Rockettes, but for everyone she meets, it is an opportunity to share their dreams. In the last part of the book, one of Jennifer’s favorite moments, the mother is reading to the child, and the page says, “What is your most favorite thing to do in the world? The world can’t wait to find out?” Jennifer asks the children at her readings this same question. She told us she has gotten a variety of answers, some of the most memorable are a clown, a soccer player, an astronaut, and of course, a dancer. She hopes they all become those things.

Jennifer is not done chasing her dreams! She is exploring acting, and if you’re on a Delta flight, you might see Jennifer taking a yoga class in Costa Rica as part of your on-flight instructional video. Like all of our favorite actors, she is auditioning to find roles and just have fun with them. She hopes to be in a limited series one day, but whatever she does, we know she’s bringing Broadway enthusiasm and Rockette precision.

Courtesy of Jennifer Jones

Her other passion is also about trying. Jennifer is five years cancer-free from colorectal cancer. Diagnosed late with stage 3, Jennifer and her loved ones were shocked. She was the healthy member of the family, the athlete, the dancer, and the vegetarian. She works now to encourage people to get screened even if they think they’re perfectly healthy and to show people that there isn’t a “typical” cancer patient. For Jennifer, like encouraging someone to chase dreams of being on stage, it’s enough to get someone to try. She shared that even if only one person for every 100 she talks to gets screened, then that’s someone she helped.

As if sharing her Rockette journey, having your back, and raising awareness about colorectal cancer weren’t enough, Jennifer has one other project she’s working on. This fall, Jennifer’s memoir Becoming Spectacular hits shelves. “[Becoming Spectacular] is about my childhood, growing up and becoming the first Black Rockette, of course. I am also a cancer survivor so I go into my diagnosis…to where we are today, so I’m looking forward to that.” She shared with us that working on both On the Line and Becoming Spectacular was a “very therapeutic process.”

Jennifer is sharing her story and cheering on others who make great strides in the arts whether they are dancing, acting, writing or coming up with an entirely new way of expressing themselves. What matters is trying. What matters is extending that support to others in whatever areas we can. You never know whose world even a little support might change. “I think there’s always room to expand and grow and learn.”

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Veronica Good has been with Showstopper Magazine since 2016. When she isn't keeping you updated on the latest trends, she is at home with her many pets or probably playing The Sims 4. Veronica has a BA in English and an MA in writing from Coastal Carolina University. She is also a writer of fiction and poetry, and her work can be found in Archarios, Tempo, and Scapegoat.