Hanging in The Balance | The New Engagement

Hanging in The Balance

By Jennifer Jones

During tech rehearsal, I lost my balance for a moment. “Are you alright?” The girl next to me asked. I tore my eyes away from the 6,000 empty seats in Radio City Music Hall to smile back in thanks. “I think so,” I told her.

“Yeah, your first time, it can kind of throw you off,” she assured me.

She was right. Here I was, 20 years old on this beautiful stage illuminated in orange and yellow, about to dance in the Rockettes’ Christmas Show Spectacular for the first time. I was still in my rehearsal clothes—skin-tone tights and a black leotard—but soon I’d have my hair and makeup done. I’d put on my sequins and red shoes, and before I knew it, I’d be back up on stage dancing “Christmas in New York” to a filled theater. At the end of the night, I’d fulfill a lifelong dream as I walked out the stage door rather than exiting onto 6th Avenue with the crowd.

It wasn’t only a first for me. The troupe was founded in 1925, yet this was the first time that a black woman would be part of its iconic Christmas show. It was the first time the choreographer had worked with a black woman, and the first time the audience would see a black woman on the kick line on that landmark stage. 

 

It was 1988. Why did it take so long?

Just six years before, the director, Violet Holmes, had told the New York Times that the Rockettes were a precision group. “One or two black girls in the line would definitely distract.”

Who could avoid a single moment of unsteadiness under circumstances like those? My life had done a complete 180. I had just become the first African American Radio City Music Hall Rockette. But it was about more than me—I knew that so much else rested on my success.

§

“You should take your red shoes and go home. You’re ruining Christmas.” I read these words in a letter received just days after my first show. 

One moment, I was in the spotlight for achieving a breakthrough. The next, I was receiving hate mail.

The writer, a woman from Kansas, had begun as many do—with pleasantries. “I hope this finds you well,” “Sending you best wishes for the holidays.” Then, it took a turn. Her family had gone to see the Rockettes year after year, but they wouldn’t go as long as I was on stage. I should quit so that I didn’t ruin their Christmas, she told me.

I vented to the nearest person I felt like I could talk to, my dance teacher, Frank Hatchett’s assistant. 

“You have to get over it,” she told me. “This sort of thing is going to happen.”

§

Thirty-three years after my debut, the Rockettes of Color Alumnae is forming just as the national spotlight turns toward Black Lives Matter. My attention is torn in several directions. I’m in St. Croix with my father. For maybe the first time in my life, he and I are alone together for days and weeks without my sisters, my children, or my mother. We’re getting reacquainted in paradise, but a pandemic paints the background, along with the protests back home in the States. Not to mention that I’m working remotely.

This time, it’s another balancing act, although not on my feet but with my words. I have to find the right message—to form the remarks that will make the people who look up to me proud, all the while collaborating with my newfound sisters.

In this Zoom call with more than thirty women, there are so many new faces. Most of us don’t know each other— there have been fifty or so of us sprinkled in over a period of more than thirty years, the “inclusive” era my first performance kicks off. 

Why is it still taking so long?

When each one of us was tokenized, it was hard to raise our voices together.

Now, we tell each other about our experiences and give the current ladies on the line a refuge. So many of our stories are the same. “You have to get over it,” they told me. Yet over thirty years, people like the woman in Kansas have continued resisting diversity, inclusiveness, and change. 

§

I was last in St. Croix two years ago. I had just been diagnosed with colon cancer. Stage III. 

A month before a planned family vacation, I had gone in for the routine colonoscopy recommended for women when they turn fifty. Weeks before that, I had told my doctor something was off and asked to be seen right away. She shrugged it off and told me the scheduler would let me know the first availability.

Before I went under the anesthesia, I ran through the facts in my mind, trying to maintain confidence that everything was fine. I was doing everything right: I had been a vegetarian my entire life, I still exercised every day, and I had even had my own fitness studio in the 90’s! 

I woke up disoriented, the fluorescent lights bright above me. Almost as soon as I blinked my eyes open, the doctor’s face hovered over me. “You have cancer,” she said.

 I had been thrown off-balance again. That was how she announced it? No time to gather my loved ones, no conversation seated in a calming office? My partner picked me up, and I was silent the whole ride home.

I didn’t tell anyone that day, or the next, or the next. I wanted the vacation to be perfect. My daughter and I hadn’t been speaking, and I yearned to reconnect. She would be there, and surely she’d be able to see and feel how much I loved and missed her.

So I went with that secret. I went with the belief that it was better not to say anything, even to my loved ones.

Upon my return, I started chemotherapy. And I felt so much better right away. I got my appetite back, and my tumor began to shrink. 

Now, I have been cancer-free for over a year. I know that I took a detrimental risk with my health in delaying my treatment. There are so many reasons why we stay silent.

§

In St. Croix again, I think of how there are sicknesses in our world that we must not be afraid to talk about. Denying them does not make us any safer. There is no way of “getting over” them—we must bring them into the light, look at them together, and root them out. 

When I began my professional career, I was often made to feel as though I should feel lucky to be given work. Not that I was beautiful enough, or talented enough, or smart enough to succeed—but that companies were doing me a favor. How many women of color develop imposter syndrome when the message we’re given is that we should simply feel fortunate to be chosen so just shut up and dance? 

I wanted nothing more than to dance—to express myself, to share my talent, to be in motion and forget about everything that swirled around me, even the thousands of pairs of eyes in front of me. But to find the joy, it is also necessary to find the courage to express other feelings, from pain to sadness to fear and beyond. 

 

They are a part of the dance of life, too. When we acknowledge that, how could it ruin anything, for anyone?

These competing emotions create moments of uncertainty and instability, but they also provide opportunity. When we are there to catch each other, there’s the potential for growth and new beginnings as we find our footing once again.

 

Jennifer Jones is an award-winning performer recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking accomplishments and equal rights advocacy in the arts. In 1987, she became the first African American Radio City Music Hall Rockette, making her the first black female performer since the New York City troupe’s 1932 establishment to be honored with the distinction. Her RCMH Rockette national debut was in 1988 during the Super Bowl XXII Halftime Show. In 1989, she was crowned Miss Morris County Pageant Queen in her native New Jersey as its first African American champion. During her penultimate year rostering at the RCMH Rockettes, she performed in the ensemble of the 2001 Broadway revival of “42nd Street,” which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Jones is currently writing a memoir and children’s book in an ongoing commitment to share her milestones with a broad global community. As one of this era's most inspirational figures, she's also committed to bringing her essential triumphs to the big screen.

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