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JUNE 2004

National Dance Institute & Jacques d’Amboise
by Margaret Cuomo

On the first day that we met Jacques d’Amboise, he was sitting on the wood paneled floor of a dance studio in Soho—in the National Dance Institute’s (NDI) headquarters in New York City, surrounded by twelve children, ages five to seven.

“Brroomph—bippity bop!—that’s magic talk for “pay attention!” Jacques has the sparkling eyes, tousled hair, lithe body, and imagination of a person less than half his age. Children understand that Jacques, kind and friendly, is serious when it comes to dance. Discipline and respect are gently, but firmly, emphasized. Marianna Cuomo Maier, one of eleven granddaughters in the Cuomo family, is fortunate to have attended the after-school program, called Arts Encounter, taught by Jacques and one of NDI’s most dynamic teachers, Emily Margolis. Marianna has been inspired by Jacques, Emily, and the NDI dance program.

Jacques d’Amboise, the brilliant dancer, spent much of his childhood and adolescence on West 163rd Street in Manhattan, the tough Washington Heights neighborhood. Jacques’ mother, Georgette, recognized the value of arts education, and introduced Jacques to ballet lessons at age 7. Young Jacques demonstrated a talent for dancing at this young age, and was admitted to the school of American Ballet, run by George Balanchine. At age 15, Jacques joined the New York City Ballet, and was made the lead male dancer by Balanchine. A star was born, and his joyful presence can be felt in his performances. In addition to becoming a principal dancer of the New York City ballet, Jacques was also outstanding in the film versions of in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954), and “Carousel,” (1956).

In 1976, at the age of 42, Jacques decided to “give back” by founding the National Dance Institute (NDI) that is a not-for-profit organization which targets students at the 4th, 5th and 6th grade levels. Over 75,000 elementary school students across the country have participated in the NDI, and it has provided an opportunity for students to learn dance principles, and performance skills. The NDI operates with “…the belief that the arts have a unique power to engage children and motivate them towards excellence.” NDI in-school program is a highly effective method for teaching dance skills, as well as enhancing a student’s self-esteem. Jacques is a role model and mentor to each NDI student and teacher. The NDI program encourages the development of higher order thinking skills, associated with cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic areas of learning. The students are better able to stay focused during their academic classes, and their self-confidence is improved.

The end of the year performances are a glorious culmination of a year’s worth of effort on the part of the students, their parents, and the NDI teachers. A strong sense of community has developed as a result of the NDI programs in public schools in New York, and throughout the country.

Jacques d’Amboise raises the bar high for his students, and will accept nothing less than their best. At a rehearsal for NDI’s annual fundraising gala, this year held at Roseland, over 50 young dancers, ages 9--15, in NDI’s “Celebration Team,” or scholarship program for children demonstrating talent in dance and performance, gathered at LaGuardia High School on a sunny, 80 degree day, to practice for this special event. Jacques was the creative master—offering direction on choreography, musical arrangement, costume design, and staging.

Significantly, Jacques is the heart and soul of NDI, and his passion and commitment are palpable. His blue work shirt was saturated with perspiration, as he demonstrated a high kick, or a turn and stomp across the dance floor. The young dancers are disciplined and well trained. They respectfully accept Jacques’ corrections, and seem to understand that Jacques’ precision is a sign of his confidence in them. The students repeat the dance routines many times, until Jacques offers his boyish, beaming grin that says, “Yes, now you have it!” The dancers strive for excellence, a goal that they have learned from Jacques and his dedicated staff of teachers, that includes the talented Artistic Director, Ellen Weinstein, Artistic Associate Director, Tracy Straus, and the many fine teachers, including Emily Margolis and Mary Kennedy. Each of the dance teachers, and the music directors (including Jerome Korman, David Marck, and Peter Yarin) associated with NDI, is a highly creative professional with a special gift for communicating with young people. NDI offers a teacher training program for interested dance teachers.

The dancers were outfitted in stylish clothing donated by Burberry, as Rose Marie Bravo, CEO of Burberry, is the 2004 NDI honoree. Dr. Deepak Chopra is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, and Chita Rivera, the Artistic Honoree.

This year’s gala includes a “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Somebody Loves Me,” and a world premiere of “My Place,” composed exclusively for Jacques d’Amboise by Martin Charnin, composer of “Annie,” with an original dance choreographed by Mary Kennedy of NDI. These dances are energetic, challenging, and passionate.

Jacques’ philosophy of life and of dance is one. He says, “I hate the word ‘fun,’ and I hate the word ‘education.’ I prefer ‘joy’ to replace ‘fun,’ and ‘learning’ to replace ‘education.’ Then, you would never hear the question asked, “When did you finish your education?”

For Jacques d’Amboise, dancer, teacher, and mentor, the process of discovery and learning is a journey that lasts a lifetime. He offers his students and teachers an opportunity to enter a world that requires a commitment to excellence. As this vibrant Peter Pan knows, fulfillment and joy are the rewards for dedication and perseverance.#

Margaret Cuomo Maier, M.D. is active in the medical community as well as the arts.



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