Sandra Fortune-Green remembers rushing over for class after school let out, setting every hair in place and pulling on pink tights and a black leotard to submit to the vigilant eyes of her teachers, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood. They demanded not only unparalleled technique, but also discipline, manners and impeccable grooming.
The renowned ballet school celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with a series of events culminating in a May 15 gala. At its inception, the school was among a few in the country instructing primarily African-American young ladies in classical technique. George Balanchine was known to visit or send scouts to recruit for his School of American Ballet. And, in 1961, Jones and Haywood founded the first African-American ballet company, the Capitol Ballet, seven years before Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Fortune-Green has led Jones Haywood School of Dance as artistic director since 2006, following Jones’ death (Haywood died in 1978). Recalling the women who trained her for the 1973 Second International Ballet Competition in Moscow, where she was the first African American competing, she says: “When you walked through the door, it was about standards. You couldn’t be late. You could not come here without any part of your dance attire.” That still holds today.
Besides Fortune-Green, who performed guest stints with the Royal Winnipeg and Santo Domingo ballets and made a career with Mary Day’s Washington Ballet, other alums include Broadway dancer/choreographer Hinton Battle; former Royal Netherlands Ballet principal Sylvester Campbell; former DTH principal and now director Virginia Johnson; and former Philadanco dancer Kim Bears-Bailey. But Jones-Haywood didn’t just produce fine dancers. The roster boasts professionals of all stripes.
“Miss Jones, who was a wonderful ballet dancer from Boston, couldn’t perform professionally because she was black. And we knew that,” says one-time student and Capitol Ballet dancer Lauri Fitz-Pegado, now a partner at a government relations and public affairs firm. “She had a real compassion and passion that came through. Miss Haywood was the hard-driving, tough one. She used a cane and sometimes it flew across the room.”
A retired university administrator and a student from 1944 to 1952, Adrienne Price remembers one of the best dancers at the school: “There was the A student and then there was Conchita. She was above and beyond.” That would be Chita Rivera, who went on to the School of American Ballet before taking over Broadway.
By the time Miss Jones died at 92 in 2006, the studio had lost some of its gloss, according to Fortune-Green, then a longtime teacher in DC’s public arts academy, Duke Ellington School for the Arts. She was determined to return the school to its legacy of excellence.
“To me, more is not necessarily better,” she says. “I work very hard to track kids according to ability, to have a quality product.” She presently oversees about 80 students in an expanded curriculum that includes modern, tap and jazz.
Renee Robinson, an alum who has danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 1981, says, “When I work with young people now, the two most important things I do—instilling discipline, whether they become dancers or not, and confidence—I learned at Jones Haywood.” DT
Lisa Traiger writes on dance from the Washington, DC, area.
Photo: Sandra Fortune-Green corrects a student (by Roy Volkman, courtesy of Jones Haywood School of Dance)