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National Dance Institute—“Dancing Through Life”

By Margaret I. Cuomo, M.D.

“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.



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