Jones taught "courage, focus, pride, humor," Rivera, 83, said in a phone interview. "And most definitely to work really hard, 'cause you don't get anything free. I don't care who you are, you really have to work for it. And that's stuck with me all these years."
Jones's lessons in life, as well as art, served Rivera well even at her lowest moments. In 1986, the car she was driving was struck by a taxi, and the 10-time Tony-nominated actor-singer-dancer suffered a compound fracture in her left leg that required 16 screws and months of healing.
"I don't think I would've recovered had I not had the training that Miss Jones gave me," Rivera said.
"You have to have the lows in your life so you can deal with them," she said. "That's what Miss Jones taught. She was so elegant, and so strong at the same time. She took no excuses."
Rivera received a "Legacy Award" at the March 13 event at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Md., as part of the Jones-Haywood School's 75th-anniversary celebration. Jones died in 2006 at age 92. Her school still operates out of the same modest gray house on Delafield Place in Northwest Washington, where Jones lived upstairs and taught in the single studio below. Along with Rivera, celebrated Jones-Haywood graduates include three-time Tony-winning actor Hinton Battle and ballet and film choreographer Louis Johnson.
Jones's training was so rigorous and sophisticated that word spread to New York's most elite ballet institution. A talent scout from George Balanchine's School of American Ballet–the training arm of the New York City Ballet–asked Johnson and Rivera to audition before the revered ballet master. While Rivera was rattled by that high-pressure scene, Jones took it in stride.
"At New York City Ballet the girls were all very tall and very thin, and I got off the elevator and said, 'Oh, Miss Jones, I'm short and Puerto Rican!' " Rivera recalls. "And she said, 'Now, Conchita, you just stay in your lane and do what I've taught you to do.' "
That no-nonsense advice served Rivera well when she developed a blister on her heel during the audition. It finally burst and caused a bloodstain on her tights, which caught Balanchine's eye.
He reacted, she says, like "the sweetest, most gentle grandfather. He stopped and made me put my foot on his thigh," Rivera says. He took off her shoe and sent out for scissors to cut away the bloody fabric. "Then he put a Band-Aid on my heel, put the shoe back on, and I got back on pointe again and finished the audition." And she landed a scholarship. (So did Johnson.)
As Rivera went on to Broadway fame–starring as Anita in "West Side Story" and as Velma in "Chicago," and in a long string of other musicals including "The Rink" and "The Visit"–she always invited Jones to her openings. But Jones never came, until "Kiss of the Spider Woman." At the party afterwards, Rivera asked her teacher why she hadn't attended her other shows.
"She said, 'Well, Conchita, I would love to have come, but I was too busy making other young girls into beautiful dancers.'
"And that was her," said Rivera. "That was the way she thought and the way she taught."