There are plenty of pioneers in the ballet world, choreographers who have molded the art form into new shapes, taken it in new directions, given it new meaning. And then there is ballet teacher Doris Jones, who took one of the most revolutionary steps of all by simply throwing open her doors to Washington's black children.
Jones's mission was stamped upon her early. When, as a child growing up in Boston, she was denied entry into the predominantly white world of ballet, she vowed to change things for others. Not that she made anything easy for the thousands of students who trained at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, or who performed in the Capitol Ballet, one of the first professional companies for black dancers, which she and partner Claire Haywood directed for 20 years. It finally folded for lack of funding in the early 1980s. But even in the last months of her life, Jones, who died Tuesday at the age of 92, was waging war on slack spines and sagging knees.
Jones was a delicately built woman with a will of steel who let exactly nothing get in the way of what she wanted. She started teaching black children in 1941, in a spare room at a YMCA in Northeast Washington. About a decade later she moved into an unassuming gray house on Delafield Place NW, where the school still exists, around the corner from the liquor stores on busy Georgia Avenue. She and Haywood, with whom she founded the school in the aftermath of a failed marriage, lived upstairs (Haywood died in 1978).
A heavy smoker, Jones commanded her staff to help her light up after arthritis crippled her hands, even after suffering through breast cancer and diabetes. Neither age nor infirmity dampened her drive. When I last watched her teach half a dozen years ago, she was bent over a cane but still ordering a roomful of little girls around in a hot, stuffy studio with a childlike voice made shrill at the sight of flagging energy.
The list of former students who went on to successful careers is long -- Broadway star Chita Rivera, Tony-winning actor and dancer Hinton Battle, choreographer Louis Johnson, Sandra Fortune-Green (who in 1973 became the first African American ballerina to compete at the elite international ballet competition in Moscow) and Charles Augins, chairman of the dance department at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, to name just a few.
"Thank God she was my teacher," Rivera said yesterday. "She was really my foundation. I could not be whatever I am today without Miss Jones." Rivera, who began training with Jones and Haywood at the age of 8 or 9, remembered Jones as "quiet, diplomatic, elegant, but she was powerful. Technique was what it was all about. She always wanted you to first be technically correct, then she would want you to be yourself."
In Rivera's case, that meant tolerating a bit of clowning around. But only a bit. Once, Rivera said, both she and Johnson were sent home for giggling in an adagio class. Yet threaded through the scolding was the expectation of excellence, and that was what fostered success in her students, Rivera said.
"It makes your body strong when you're taught properly," said Rivera, "but it also makes you strong spiritually, and gives you hope to keep going, when you're taught to be great."
In tribute to her former teacher, Rivera played Jones in a scene in her autobiographical Broadway show, "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life," re-creating how Jones took her to New York to audition for the famed choreographer George Balanchine. Rivera and Johnson won scholarships to the School of American Ballet, the training arm of Balanchine's New York City Ballet.
They were the only two students of color at Balanchine's school then, said Arthur Mitchell, the former New York City Ballet star who went on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem. When he found out they both came from the same school in Washington -- a school specifically dedicated to black students, something Mitchell had never heard of -- he came down on his days off to teach for Jones and Haywood.
According to Mitchell, Balanchine also would travel to the Jones-Haywood School to give the two women master classes in his technique and his approach to teaching. Mitchell would often stay overnight upstairs, where, he said, Jones and Haywood would fuss over him and cook him breakfast. "It was a home away from home," he said yesterday.
The mothering ended in the kitchen, however. In the studio, it was all business.
One would teach, and the other would frequently keep her eye on the class from the narrow staircase, "so there was nothing you could get away with," Mitchell said.
Jones, he recalled, was a singular tap dancer, and her ballet teaching incorporated the speed and light footwork -- stepping high on the balls of the feet -- that are a tapper's hallmarks. "It was really 21st-century dance," he said.
Jones kept teaching even after arthritis finally forced her to use a wheelchair. Still, she made it into the studio every now and then; one of the students' parents would carry her down from her upstairs bedroom and set her up in her wheelchair.
Over the last year, Jones lost the use of her hands and legs and became bedridden. Yet even that didn't stop her from teaching. If she were having a good day, one of the teachers might bring a group of children up to Jones's bedroom, where they would sit on the floor and wait for their turn to demonstrate a step or two to the sharp-eyed figure propped up against the pillows.
The students would balance "against the bedpost," said Mary Chisolm, a former teacher at the school who became one of Jones's chief assistants. "They would go up on pointe, do a couple of pirouettes, and she would give corrections like, 'Your back's not right,' or 'Bring up those knees.' "
Yet even after turning out so many fine dancers, from celebrities to ordinary folks with a sterling sense of poise and bearing, Jones did not feel she had completely met her goal of smashing the racial barrier in the ballet world. "I think she felt there was more she would have liked to have done, had she been able to," said Chisolm. "I don't think she was ever completely satisfied."