National Dance Institute—“Dancing Through Life”
“5-6-7-8—Lift your knees! —Higher! — Higher! —Look at the audience! —Now Smile!” It is a frigid Saturday morning in December at P.S. 130 in Chinatown, when many children throughout New York City are watching cartoons in their pajamas or still snug in their warm beds. For the young dancers of National Dance Institute (NDI), Saturdays are reserved for learning and rehearsing the often challenging choreography presented by NDI teaching artists.
What is the magic that inspires this passionate dedication in such young students? The answer lies in the philosophy of education espoused by the extraordinary NDI Founder Jacques d’Amboise, and the brilliant Artistic Director, Ellen Weinstein (rhymes with “Einstein”). NDI raises the bar high for its dancers. Recognizing the power of the arts to inspire students to excellence in all aspects of their lives, d’Amboise developed a dance pedagogy that would motivate all students to learn and excel as dancers. Artistic Director Weinstein has collaborated with d’Amboise to create a unique learning environment. Each year’s dance curriculum culminates in mid-year and end of year assemblies, attended by parents and friends. The “Event of the Year” in June is a full-scale performance with live music and scenery, usually presented at La Guardia High School. Weinstein and her faculty of teaching artists select themes, which invite an in-depth study of the culture, as well as the music and dance, of a particular country or ethnicity. In the past few years, NDI curricular themes have included the life of Albert Einstein, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” and the cultures of Africa. Mexico is the 2007 theme, and the NDI has collaborated with Mexican choreographers and dancers to create a vibrant and exciting program of yearlong study.
Since it’s founding in 1976, NDI has impacted the lives of over 2 million children worldwide. Over 35,000 New York City public school children participate in NDI programs each year. NDI’s teaching “team” consists of a master teacher/choreographer, a teaching assistant, and a musician. A commitment to live music is an essential part of the NDI experience. The In-School Program provides weekly classes within New York City public schools to all students, including those with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. NDI programs also exist for grades K-5 at the Special Music School, and for high school students at the Individual Pathways program of Walton High School Annex. With the support of a planning grant from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), P.S. 163 is piloting an integrated arts curriculum for grades PK-5 that will embed NDI pedagogy throughout the academic disciplines. NDI has established affiliate programs in California, New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New Jersey. Internationally, NDI has developed cultural exchanges with Australia, Bali, Chile, China, Ethiopia, Hawaii, India, Ireland, Israel, Nepal, Palestine, Russia, Senegal and Siberia, and is currently helping to establish a program in Mexico.
What do the educational experts think of NDI? Dr. Howard Gardner is the highly respected Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, and a leader of Project Zero, an education research group. For years, Dr. Gardner has been an enthusiastic advocate of the pedagogy and performance model established by NDI. Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch, renowned early childhood educator, and founder of the American Montessori Society, described NDI’s pedagogy as exemplifying quality teaching. In 2004, Dr. Rob Horowitz, Associate Director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University’s Teachers College conducted an indepth external evaluation of NDI’s In-School Program. His report reinforced the efficacy of the NDI pedagogy in engaging the students’ higher order thinking skills related to cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic learning. Horowitz also affirmed what NDI knows so well: that NDI students demonstrate increased self-confidence, concentration, and focus.
Perhaps the “magic” of NDI lies in the way the music and dance motivate the dancers, and their teachers, to excel beyond what they thought they could accomplish. Perhaps it is the fact that the teachers believe firmly in the young dancers’ ability, and the dancers strive to exceed the high standards set by their teachers. Some of that magic was evident on November 22nd, 2007, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The NDI dancers marched and danced their way down Broadway, and performed at Herald Square where they were televised nationwide by NBC. Viewers from across the USA were inspired and moved by their joyful energy, as well as their obvious talent. A petite powerhouse, Artistic Director Ellen Weinstein nearly vibrates with enthusiasm as she speaks about NDI. “NDI’s curriculum is accessible to all. We challenge children beyond what they ever dreamed possible, but not beyond what they are capable of. We take the children on an exhilarating adventure that has hard work, rigorous discipline and joy attached. It is everything good education should be.”
The face of former New York City Ballet Principal dancer, Jacques d’Amboise, radiates with a youthful zest for life. Although he is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards (Kennedy Center Honors, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” The Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture, The National Medal of Arts, People Magazine’s People First Honoree, and many others), Jacques is a humble, child-centered giant. Having traveled throughout the globe with his beautiful ballerina and photographer wife, Carolyn, d’Amboise brings a wealth of life experiences to his commitment to NDI. What has d’Amboise discovered throughout NDI’s thirtyone year history? “It all filters down to three essential words: Children are everything.” What does the future hold for the NDI? d’Amboise reflects: “What the NDI has done throughout its thirty-one year history, and is doing now, will continue in the future in an expanded way.” That expansion would include the establishment of a permanent home for NDI, envisioned as a Center for Learning and the Arts. This center would serve as a crucible for the training of teaching artists and would provide a much needed rehearsal and performance space for NDI dancers. Such a permanent residence would solidify NDI’s future, and would offer an appropriate testament to the life of Jacques d’Amboise, who has inspired millions of children through participation in the arts. In the words of the incomparable d’Amboise, “The arts open your heart and mind to possibilities that are limitless. They are pathways that touch upon our brains and emotions; they are human beings’ greatest form of communication. They walk in tandem with science and play, and best describe what it is to be human.”
One NDI supporter observes, “When you experience an NDI performance, you have the sense that there is hope for a better future, because these children will make it happen.”
For more information about this extraordinary arts program, visit www.nationaldance.org #
As an advocate for excellence in children’s education, Dr. Margaret I. Cuomo is a supporter of several organizations involving the arts and world language education, including NDI and Concordia Language Villages.