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New York City
December 2002

Jacques d’Amboise Shares Passion for Dance with City Students
By Tom Kertes

“Most of them will not become dancers,” National Dance Institute (NDI) founder Jacques d’Amboise smiles warmly while looking out at the group of four-to-sixth graders practicing an unmistakably Russian-flavored routine at the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts. “But I’m quite sure that all of them will become better students and better-rounded people through this.”

“This” is the NDI program, founded 26 years ago by d’Amboise. NDI is not-for-profit—“Boy, is it ever!” he groans— because d’Amboise strongly believes that “the arts have a unique power to engage children and motivate them to excellence.” A high school dropout from the seedy Washington Heights streets at age 15, d’Amboise became a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet by the age of 17 and remained one of America’s top ballet stars until his retirement in 1984. In 1976, he founded NDI “to give others the gift and enrichment that I enjoyed all my life through the arts.”

As envisioned by its founder, NDI is unique. “In other programs, an artist will go to a school to perform to the kids,” says d’Amboise, a boyish 68 in beat-up sneakers, sky blue work shirt to match his lively eyes, and jeans. “But what we do is send professional artists—dancers, musicians, choreographers—to the schools to get the children to perform.” Over 2000 of them do annually, from all kinds of schools—“rich, poor, and everything in-between” says d’Amboise—all over the United States, many of them sacrificing their after-school leisure hours and weekends. Looking at their faces—flushed, smiling, thrilled from the accomplishment—it’s safe to say that not one of them would change a minute of their schedule.

In addition to giving of his time and talent, d’Amboise brings the world to these kids. Today’s guest teacher is Shamil Yagudin, Ballet Master of the world-renown Bolshoi Ballet who also choreographed the piece the kids are practicing. “I first saw Shamil dance in 1958,” says d’Amboise. “He was wonderful. He could fly.”

“I come to America every year to bring new dances, judge competitions, teach all over the country, and help Jacques,” says the 70-year young Yagudin in his thick accent. “I’m not Russian, you know. I’m Tartar. This is Tartar music, yes? Anyway, it’s much nicer to come to USA now. Before 1989, every time I looked behind me on street, I saw KGB.” Today, no matter where he looks, all he sees is kids hungry for his every word, drinking in each movement he shows them.

“Jacques is good friend for very long time,” says Yagudin. “He ask, I come.”

The forty-plus kids at this practice are members of NDI’s Celebration Team, comprised of the “most talented, most enthusiastic, and most willing of all our participants,” says d’Amboise. NDI, however, is far more than “just” the best of its best: it is in 20 elementary schools in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout the City every single day, its program part of the regular curriculum. Each year the practice sessions lead up to a big “Event of the Year” —200 kids traveling to different schools to perform—as well as more than twenty smaller school events where students perform for their peers. Do the students mind the hours? “I am having so much fun with Jacques and Shamil that I can’t even tell you how much fun I’m having,” one pigtailed fourth-grade girl says while taking a rare “five” during the exhaustive workshop.

“We’ve worked with over one million kids so far,” d’Amboise, who went from active NDI leader to “something like a roving ambassador” a couple of years ago, says. These days, he travels all over the country—all over the world, in fact —training teachers and checking on the progress of NDI-related programs. “We’ve touched so many lives. This is not just about dance, you know. This is about changing lives. It’s about music, poetry, acting, and scenery making. It’s about creating a real theater experience. It’s about opening up a wonderful new world to some kids who otherwise may not ever have the chance to see that world. And this is about how these children grow up to be more confident, and better-disciplined, adults who will perhaps become more successful in whatever they choose to do with their lives due to this experience.”#

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