CONCORD -- As Elayne Jones strides toward Dance Connection in Concord, dancer and Concord Pilates instructor Tonya Amos can't help but stop what she's doing and admire the woman approaching her.

"Take a look at her, at Ms. Jones," said Amos. "She's such an amazing woman. Look at those sculpted arms, those muscles from playing the timpani all those years."

Jones broke down barriers, coming from humble beginnings to attending Julliard in 1945 as the only African-American woman chosen to receive the prestigious Duke Ellington Scholarship. In 1949, she became the first African-American to play with the New York City Opera. Her background epitomizes the very essence of African Americans making a mark in American history, Amos said.

The 86-year old world-class concert timpanist joins Amos and other dancers of the Grown Women Dance Collective for the annual "Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars: A Juneteenth Celebration Through Dance," on June 27, in Pleasant Hill, and June 28 in Pittsburg.

Now, in its fifth year, the dance collective seeks to increase cultural awareness through its annual concerts and raising funds for scholarships.

In 1998, Jones retired from the San Francisco Opera orchestra, and now conducts lecture demonstrations for children and adults in schools and community centers.

"We're honored to have such a cultural treasure share her talent with us," Amos said.


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In recent years, the multimedia dance and music event has paid tribute to such musical talents as Ray Charles, Lena Horne, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, Luther Vandross and Miriam Makeba. This year's show will honor other notable artists who've recently died: Yusef Lateef, George Duke and Cleotha Staples. A special tribute dance will be dedicated to Maya Angelou.

Amos said Juneteenth celebrations that honor African-American musical artists through dance help preserve the tradition that dates back to June 19, 1865, the date of the oldest-known event celebrating African-American liberation from slavery. The news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were now free arrived in Texas two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The multimedia portion of the show, produced by Amos' husband, Donald Martin Jr., presents photos and highlights the achievements of these African American musical artists whose work will be interpreted by unique choreography.

Amos, who dances with her own father Morris Amos to to Luther Vandross' "Dance with my Father," organized the annual Juneteenth event in Contra Costa County as a testament to her own struggles to gain recognition as a young dancer in the predominantly white San Francisco Ballet community in the 1970s.

She temporarily gave up dancing until college when, at UC Berkeley, she attended a performance by the Alvin Ailey dancers and was amazed at the artistry of dancers who showed her "you can make it in dance no matter what your skin color."

It was then that she realized music and dance can create social change, she said.

"It's a pleasure dancing with my daughter and watching her evolution from ballerina to choreographer to businesswoman," said Morris Amos.

Jones said that Amos' artistic journey -- from San Francisco Ballet dancer being denied lead roles in "The Nutcracker," to UC Berkeley grad, to a four-year scholarship at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and dancing professionally in New York City -- reminds her of her own journey.

Jones gained national attention as the first African-American to hold a principal position in a major symphony orchestra in the United States.

Jones' parents, who immigrated to New York City from Barbados, came from families of musicians and educators, yet they experienced racism upon their arrival in the United States, Jones said.

"My mother wanted me to do something respectable. My parents made me study and practice piano," said Jones, who was born and raised in New York City.

Her hard work paid off. Jones attended a music and art high school later known as the School of Performing Arts in Lincoln Center. Next stop: Julliard.

Jones performed in the most prestigious concert halls and symphonies of the world, but said that participating in the Juneteenth celebration has been the ultimate honor because she is performing alongside other African-American women artists.

"This is a celebration of how I made it from a skinny black girl from Harlem to making history," Jones said.

Grown Women Dance Collective
WHAT: 'Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars -- A Juneteenth Celebration Through Dance'
WHEN: 8 p.m. June 27, Diablo Valley College; 8 p.m. June 28, California Theatre, Pittsburg
COST: $25, advance/$30 at door. Call 800-838-3006 or BrownPaperTickets.com for Pleasant Hill show; 925-427-1611 or PittsburgCaliforniaTheatre.com
INFORMATION: Visit www.grownwomendance.org