Playwright, dancer, mentor in the arts

Selvarine Jones Jan. 26, 1960-Oct. 14, 2021

In her 61 years of life, Selvarine Jones worked everywhere from restaurants and retail to city government, the faith community and in the arts, where she mentored dancers and brought a new rhythm to her church and to the Springfield Area Arts Council. To those she mentored and associated with in Springfield, she was known as a playwright and a dancer.

But to her family, including twin sister Elmada Meek, she became the glue that held the family together when their mother passed away. Meek said both daughters were raised by a working mother and their grandmother, and started working themselves at a young age. They also danced.

"It started off with praise dance in the church," Elmada recalled. "We were one of the first to actually bring praise dance to the church in Springfield. We became well-known in the community for praise dance and working with youth, and a friend approached us about opening a dance studio."

The sisters opened up a dance studio together in 90s, during the same time Jones – Selvar to her sister and friends – was working with the city of Springfield. In her long career, she also produced a local talk show on public access Channel 4 and produced videos for the State of Illinois' Central Management Services.

And then there were the arts, a passion her sister said started to shine through after she worked with CMS. Though family always came first, Meek said, it was clear her sister had an artist's drive.

"When it became her passion, it was clear that she should've followed that path," Meek said.

High school classmate and dance collaborator Derrick Stapleton, now president of Frontiers International's Springfield chapter, was among those who performed at Jones' funeral. He lent his vocal talents to collaborate with the sisters at their dance studio and said Jones' dancing skills brought versatility to the local arts scene.

"Because of their gift, Selvarine and Elmada were able to do different dance routines for different sorts of programs," Stapleton said. Of their dance studio, he said, "It was an opportunity for the community to connect in some kind of way to whatever their passion was, or to introduce them to new things."

Penny Wollan-Kriel served as executive director of the Springfield Area Arts Council during Jones' time on its board. She said she most remembers Jones' passion for dance and her efforts to bring diversity to the Council's programming.

"It was a different element of dance, in that it was not the ballet that so many people see, that she brought," Wollan-Kriel said. "It was also the diversity in presentation that we might not have had otherwise within the dance genre. And she was vibrant. She was a joy to work with."

Wollan-Kriel said she actually had not been aware Selvar and Elmada were twins, although according to Meek, she and her sister got up to the sort of mischief twins sometimes will. During their stint as servers at Tops Big Boy, Meek said her sister had developed a group of friendly regulars. As a prank, Jones had the sisters trade nametags and coached her sister on how to impersonate her. Hilariously, it worked, Meek said.

The girls would repeat the trick in school, swapping identities to cover for one another's weak subjects. Their fellow students were in on it, but Meek said the teachers were none the wiser.

It was an early glimmer of the performer in her sister, Meek said.

"I think those were the early signs of what kind of a character she was, and her pivotal role as, not an actress, but a sign that she had this ability to put on a different face," she said.

Another lifelong constant was her sister's faith, Meek said. Later in life, Jones attended Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, where she received an associate's degree in biblical studies, graduating magna cum laude. Meek said her sister's faith anchored the rest of her accomplishments.

"When she became involved in the church, it was like she had a calling," Meek said. "And that calling led her to not only further her education in the Christian faith, but it also helped her balance her life. It allowed her to have time for everything else she did. Because her life was very balanced and her faith was important to her, it just seemed like everything fit."

Jones leaves behind an unfinished body of work that was to include a documentary about a local restaurateur and a play about Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Those kinds of passion projects defined her sister's life and legacy in Springfield, Meek said.

"I feel that my sister really became a part of history in Springfield," she said. "The things she did got recognized in little ways, but I just think that's why you can look at her now and realize how much she's done. She never talked about and never boasted about anything she was doing. But it became evident when you saw the finished product."

Many times the people who teach us a life skill or provide us a role model for our creative drive and passion are not the folks who make headlines. For Kenneth Lowe, it was a great privilege to speak to the people who danced and sang alongside Selvarine Jones during a lifetime where she gave those gifts to so many.