- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

Doris Jones, who died this week at age 92, led a life of ex- traordinary accomplishment.Sixty-three years ago in Washington, she started a ballet school still active at the time of her death; she co-founded the Capitol Ballet, a significant part of this city’s cultural life for more than two decades and saw her talented students go on to major careers on Broadway (Chita Rivera and Hinton Battle), in ballet (Sylvester Campbell) and in modern dance (Elizabeth Walton with the Paul Taylor company, Renee Robinson with Alvin Ailey).

She did all this and more against daunting odds, when segregation was still rampant.

She was a pioneer: The classical ballet school Miss Jones founded here was one of the first in the country for black students. That accomplishment was recognized and hailed at a symposium called Classic Black, held in New York 10 years ago at Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library.

In 1961, Miss Jones went on to found the Capitol Ballet with her colleague Claire Haywood, who died in 1978.

Arthur Mitchell, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, saw the work she was doing and started coming down on his days off to teach at her school. They became lifelong friends.

“Doris Jones and what I call ‘the little school on 1200 Delafield Place’ have been one of the best kept secrets in the United States of America,” Mr. Mitchell says.

George Balanchine became interested in her school and company and would visit when his New York City Ballet came to town. One day he came to watch a class. “I was so nervous I couldn’t teach in front of him,” Miss Jones said in an interview eight years ago. “He came here often, and he fell in love with our children. He said if he was younger he’d start a black company; he didn’t want a mixed company; he wanted one that used our special qualities.”

Another benefactor was Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet. The Capitol Ballet reached a pinnacle the year Miss Jones decided to mount a production of “Pocahontas.”

“Arthur [Mitchell] was telling Kirstein we had a good school, and Kirstein helped us get a $2,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,” Miss Jones recalled. “And he got permission for us to use Elliot Carter’s music — it didn’t cost us a thing. Two friends at the Smithsonian offered to do our costumes and scenery.”

Still, there never was enough money — for proper rehearsal time, for lighting.

At the premiere, the house was packed.

“Elliot Carter was there, Lincoln Kirstein was there, Arthur Mitchell came and helped,” she said. “To have Lincoln Kirstein interested enough in a small black company was wonderful, and to know that he was interested enough to get the music for me and bring the composer down — it was a wonderful evening.”

And then — nothing. The school continued to thrive, but in those days, Miss Jones couldn’t find the million dollars that would keep a small company going. Eventually she had to disband it.

“I needed someone to come in and set it up,” she said. “But you see, in a black community, these people are fighting for their jobs; they’re never relaxed enough to take on something like helping with that because being black is not easy.”

When I last saw her she said, “I love my life now. I’m sorry I can’t walk, but I’m enjoying my friends and my students. … I have a happy life, a wonderful family, my sister left me nieces and nephews, and I have another large family, my dance family.”

With her young students, Doris Jones was strict, even something of a martinet. Always, though, she was trying to raise their vision beyond carefully pointed toes and perfect body placement, to make them aware of something more precious.

She once told me: “I tell my little people, ‘You’ve got to sing, don’t just dance, sing with your body, that’s what dancing is about; it’s not going from pose to pose.’ ”

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