Eighteen days before Tawanda Jones and her drill team—the Camden Sophisticated Sisters—found themselves shining in the national spotlight of Dancing with the Stars, tears interrupted their practice in the old cement water tower.
Hearing that arrests had just been made in the 2012 murder of her father, 16-year old Destinee Williams broke down.
Grief spread through the girls like a wave. "It was really emotional," says Shaniya Birch, 15, "because when someone started crying, it brought back memories for other people of someone they lost."
Jones didn't tell the hundred or so girls present, ages 3 to 18, to calm down.
After a lifetime in Camden, she knows that sharing the emotional fallout of life in the nation's poorest and most violent city is as important to these girls as the dance that focuses their minds elsewhere--and that Jones hopes will keep them off the streets. "Dance," she says, "is really just an excuse to save these kids."
Ten minutes later, the girls were back on their feet moving to the beat.
Kyliah Walker, 15, explained: "We dance the pain away."
At 3 AM on April 26, eight of the girls, in matching tracksuits, met at Jones' Camden rowhome—the beginning of their Hollywood journey. They held hands and prayed, climbed into a stretch limo, and flew to Los Angeles. Between fittings, rehearsals for Dancing with the Stars, and keeping up with schoolwork, Jones and the girls went sightseeing, making a pilgrimage to the posh Rodeo Drive shopping district in Beverly Hills on a Monday night even though most places are closed.
"I don't care if the stores are open are not," said Jones, a 40-year old mother of three-- especially, she says, since none of them can afford to shop there anyway. "There's a Rite Aid on Rodeo Drive? I'm getting me a pack of gum on Rodeo Drive!" Her glee was contagious, even for the girls who've never heard of the street, and they all donned dark glasses and snapped pictures of themselves in front of Cartier and Tiffany's.
After the Sisters had a lackluster rehearsal with the professional choreographer, Jones--who has no patience with diva-like behavior or garden-variety laziness—first scolded, then tried to inspire them: "You guys are paving the way for some other kids out of Camden; you don't even realize you made history!"
The Sisters' regular repertoire speaks to inner-city experience, and includes a skit about child molestation and an ode to Jones' beleaguered hometown that she wrote herself: We are tired, so sick and tired of people putting Camden down....but after you see us step, we'll turn your frown upside down!
For national television, however, they have been asked to perform Beyonce's "Get Me Bodied," in sparkling hoodies and leggings. Afterward, Jones and the girls dissolve. Weeping washes away false eyelashes, as they phone loved ones at the viewing party underway in a Camden hall. They re-group, and dance exuberantly on the sidewalk with the show's celebrity contestants before leaving the studio.
As soon as the group returns to Jersey—to be greeted at midnight by elated friends and parents—they are invited to appear on Good Morning America. Two days later, Beyonce phones Tawanda Jones .
"My ears got clogged, my body got really, really hot, and I fell down and bumped my head on the filing cabinet," says Jones. The singer congratulates her and promises to visit soon with gifts.
It is recognition that Jones never anticipated when in 1986, at age 13, she tried to sign up for a new drill team she'd heard about but was told there wouldn't be one unless she ran it herself. She was afraid she couldn't handle the responsibility, but her beloved grandfather, Walter "Dynamite" Green, disagreed, and bought 80 uniforms and a drum to show his faith. After that, Jones became a teen mother, graduated from high school, settled into a happy marriage with the father of her child, had two more kids, held down several jobs as an aide for the developmentally disabled--and still kept the drill team going. Sisters now has over 200 members, with four divisions of dancers that run the gamut from three-year olds to alumni adults, and a smattering of boys, mostly playing drums. With registration fee, monthly dues, and uniforms, it costs each child about $245 a year to belong.
Jones sets the bar high for the Sisters; they must maintain a C average, and if they have to miss one of the four three-hour practices each week, they are required to "call out" themselves. For them, she says, "This is like a job. We're teaching the child responsibility." In a city where fewer than half the high school students graduate, Jones reports that all her kids do, and most go on to college or technical school.
She demands even more of herself, becoming a second mom to the kids she calls her "babies." She's also helped families pay their electric bills, stood up to drug dealers who were harassing a boy who joined her team, and been called out of bed at 4 AM more than once "to make sure someone was safe."
She is the person, says Kyliah Walker, "who makes me think that I can be better." Sylvia Benjamin, herself a Sisters alumna, says that the group has been critical to her daughter, Destinee Williams, who joined after her father was killed. "Being in this group has changed my daughter dramatically," Benjamin said. "I'm so happy for her."
Michael DeLeon, an ex-con turned social worker whose organization, Steered Straight, has become affiliated with Sisters, sent a letter and a performance video to get the attention of the Dancing with the Stars producers. "I don't know of any social program that has accomplished what she's been able to do," says DeLeon, "in terms of everything…teen pregnancy, truancy, graduation rates, even child obesity."
For 27 years, Jones has rehearsed wherever she could, including the city streets; fundraising has consisted mainly of bake sales and performances on the sidewalks and outside the local WalMart, with the girls holding buckets for small donations.
On Dancing with the Stars, Jones was gifted with brand-new mirrors for her rehearsal space; she graciously accepted them, knowing full well she would never be allowed to hang them in the municipal water tower. Although use of the tower is free, it doesn't come close to holding all the kids who want to become Sisters, and Jones hates to turn anyone away.
She hopes that the high-profile appearances may help her achieve her dream: a new building for her team, a community center that would not only serve as a rehearsal space but be open after school and weekends for the children of Camden.
"I would call it the Dynamite Center," says Jones, "after my grandfather."