(PCM) When Jennifer Mealani Jones was a young girl growing up in Maryland, she wanted to do everything that her brother did; including baseball, gymnastics, and dancing.
The now 25-year-old professional performer believed that dancing was her destiny, since her mother’s side of the family was doing the Hawaiian Hula, and her father’s side was Salsa dancing. “So whatever music was playing, I remember everyone around me was dancing,” Jones recalled. “I have been dancing since I was seven years old.”
Now, she is starring as dance instructor Penny Johnson in “Dirty Dancing” which is playing at the Kimmel Center’s Merriam Theater in Philadelphia from May 16-21.
The classic show, which was a beloved 1987 movie, is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the release of the film. The movie starred Patrick Swayze as Johnny and Jennifer Grey as Baby. Also, an ABC-TV remake of the movie will air as a special on May 24, shortly after the tour engagement in Philadelphia.
The movie became memorable because of the classic chorography, including the move that everyone waits for – “The Lift” – during the finale of the film and stage production. The still-popular music and songs, including “Hey Baby,” “Do You Love Me,” “Wipe Out,” and the classic, “I’ve Had The Time of My Life.”
What film and musical lovers have appreciated about the show is the popular music, coming-of-age story, and the nostalgia of Kellerman’s resort, evoking our happy memories of family trips to the Catskills, Poconos or Wisconsin Dells.
PCM: What does dancing mean to you? Why do you feel that dancing is your destiny?
Jennifer Mealani Jones: It has always been a part of my life. I started when I was seven years old. We were always dancing – Hula, Salsa, and everything in between.
PCM: Did your parents give you encouragement? I know that years of auditions can be tough, and fraught with let downs?
JMJ: My mom and dad were always extremely supportive of my career and gracious about paying for my dance lessons. I also had great encouragement from two teachers, my dance teacher, Olga Tozyiakova, who took me under her wing and taught me how to have technique, and another teacher, Kevin Malone, who also took me under his wing and believed in me when I didn’t know what I was capable of.
PCM: Tell me what you love about this show “Dirty Dancing.”
JMJ: There is so much about it that I have enjoyed. But one thing that stands out is that I had never done ballroom dancing before and that was amazing to learn. I learned the foxtrot, the mambo, and the merengue. This is also my first time speaking in front of an audience like this, so I went from being a dancer to acting in a show.
PCM: Why do you feel this show has remained relevant for 30 years?
JMJ: I feel that it is a classic because it is relatable in so many ways. I always resembled the character of Baby – the shy but passionate girl in the corner who always wanted the bad boy. I have always enjoyed that the dancing was so gritty and dirty – and believed in the message.
PCM: Which message?
JMJ: The way that you discover the things in life that give you what you want, but that you never thought you could have. The show is relatable and fun because of the dancing, the music and the grit that you get from it. I love that the audience becomes so invested in the show, we can feel the energy from town to town and city to city.
PCM: When did you first see the movie?
JMJ: When I was a kid, and I loved it so much. I would tell my friends that I would love to go back in time and do this movie, so it’s really amazing to perform in the live show.
PCM: When did you start with this tour?
JMJ: I was an ensemble member starting last April and took on the role of Penny in August.
PCM: How do you feel about the upcoming TV remake?
JMJ: I used to feel that classic movies shouldn’t be touched, but I am curious since it is the 30th Anniversary. I hope that it encourages people to watch the original and see our show, as well.
PCM: I know you work long hours, but when you have some free time on the tour how to you enjoy spending it?
JMJ: I love to explore the cool, smaller cities I would never have seen without the tour. We love to spend our off time eating or sightseeing. I also like to do yoga and read.
PCM: What genre books do you enjoy?
JMJ: Self-help and philosophy books. I am reading “The Four Agreements,” and “Women Who Run with the Wolves.” I recommend both of them.
PCM: What do you hope for your future performance career?
JMJ: Where ever life takes me. I live in Los Angeles, after moving there in 2014, and I did a lot of commercial work there and concert work in Philadelphia, where I lived for six years. There is a whole world of opportunity ahead, so it depends what my jam is.
PCM: I understand that you have strong ties to Philadelphia. In fact, you started your dance career in Philly after graduating from the University of the Arts.
JMJ: Yes. I performed there with Philadanco, was featured on “So You Think You Can Dance” (Season 10), and I was an NBA 76ers Dream Team dancer. I also worked with the brilliant Gunnar Montana.
PCM: So what do you look forward to upon your upcoming return?
JMJ: I love that I will be performing at the Kimmel Center again. Seeing all of my friends still in Philly will be great. I know they are coming to see the show and so are some of my professors. So I will be getting some feedback and hopefully they will say that I am on the right trajectory.
PCM: I have to know, did your brother pursue his early endeavors of gymnastics or dancing, the same things that inspired you to pursue your passion for dancing?
JMJ: No, he happily rides motorcycles now.
PCM: When you wake up in the morning during the tour, what are you thinking?
JMJ: I’m just thankful getting paid to do a job that I love. And that I’m able to travel across the US – traveling for work and enjoying what I do.
PCM: What advice do you have for young people who wants to pursue a difficult career like you did in the performing arts?
JMJ: Work hard and work smart. Focus on your education, while pursuing your dreams. I’m so glad I want to college for dance. I would say work hard, give it everything that you’ve got and stay educated.
For tickets and information, please go to: https://www.kimmelcenter.org/reserve/index.aspx?performanceNumber=29444