"He makes me feel like dancing!" For more than 20 years, that's what thousands of excited children throughout the country have been saying after participating in Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute. Appropriately, it's also the title of the 1984 documentary about this revolutionary program that introduces children to the arts through the magic of dance. As one of the finest ballet dancers of our time, d'Amboise inspired geniuses like George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton to create some of their best works for him. As one of this country's leaders in the field of arts education, he now inspires children to lead healthy, creative, and vital lives. One of the school principals said after witnessing the transformative power of dance on his at-risk students, " What Jacques d'Amboise is doing extends far beyond his lifetime to generations of future Americans."
What he teaches to children today, he learned from experience. At seven, growing up in a rough New York neighborhood, his mother insisted he attend his sister's dance classes--not so much to participate as to keep him from joining one of the many gangs that roamed the Upper West Side. He went from fidgeting disruptively on the sidelines to out-jumping everyone else in the class. Six months later the wise teacher realized he deserved better than what she could offer, and in 1942 he joined George Balanchine's School of American Ballet. Within a few years he was dancing children's roles. By 15 he was a member of the New York City Ballet. By 17 he was a principal dancer, and by 21 he had made movies (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Carousel) and danced in Broadway shows. " What an extraordinary thing for a street boy with friends in gangs," says d'Amboise. " Half grew up to become policemen and the other half gangsters--and I became a ballet dancer!"
D'Amboise has created roles in Balanchine's Western Symphony (1954), Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1963), and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966), among others. For Ashton he premiered Picnic at Tintagel (1952). Some of his other triumphs as a dancer include leading roles in Balanchine's Apollo, Stars and Stripes, and Scotch Symphony, Lew Christensen's Filling Station, and Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of the Faun. He first choreographed for NYCB in 1963, and several of his works continue in the repertory.
In 1976, while still a principal with New York City Ballet, d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute. The inspiration was the hope that perhaps he could do for young children what that first dance teacher had done for him. " Not necessarily to prepare them to be professional performers, but to create an awareness by giving them a chance to experience the arts. My interest, my belief, my obsession," says d'Amboise, " is that arts liberate a person's heart and mind to all kinds of possibilities. He started with 30 little boys, $3,000 out of his own pocket, and talked Balanchine into letting him use the stage of the New York State Theater between performances." Within three years, he had 300 children in the program. NDI continues to grow in cities around the country. Asked why dance is so often the key to turning around young lives that are headed in the wrong direction, he responded, " Dance is the most immediate and accessible of the arts because it involves your own body. When you learn to move your body on a note of music, it's exciting. You have taken control of your body and, by learning to do that, you discover that you can take control of your life."
For his extraordinary contribution to the arts education of this country's young people, d'Amboise has been honored with a 1990 MacArthur Fellowship, the Capezio Award, the first Producer's Circle Award for public service in enriching the lives of New York City children, the Governor's Award for outstanding contributions to the art and culture of New York State, and the distinguished Paul Robeson Award for Excellence in the Field of the Humanities.