Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Shares The Power of Movement with Millions
It's May 8, 2017 and I'm sitting in the National Dance Institute Center for Learning & the Arts' quaint auditorium in Upper Manhattan, waiting for the students to take the stage. As part of the celebrated Art Nest series, this evening's mixed medium program centers on the loneliest woman in mythology: Medusa. But as the audience quiets for NDI Founder Jacques d'Amboise's speech, it is exactly the opposite feelings of community and togetherness that drum up pure joy.
While performing with the New York City Ballet, d'Amboise founded National Dance Institute in 1976 as a direct response to his early personal experiences. "Being involved with dance as a young boy... I decided to have a Saturday morning class at the School of American Ballet, focusing on young boys who may be interested in dance," says d'Amboise. But the desire to create a larger shared experience that was educational, expressive, and free for every student was even more profound. "Sometimes, a dream has fruition and reality, and my dream of dance being as an integral part of learning as math and social studies evolved into National Dance Institute," says d'Amboise.
As the program gained traction by introducing children to different kinds of dance education, d'Amboise began training likeminded dancers and choreographers to join his team, including NDI's current Artistic Director, Ellen Weinstein. "I met Jacques as a student at SUNY Purchase ... He took me under his wing, he challenged me... About 10 years later, I reached out [to him] again, and the next day, he had me teaching a [NDI] class in East Harlem. I was hooked!"
Now forty-one years later, NDI has blossomed into a national tour de force, providing free dance training and classes to nearly 30,000 students annually across twelve states. Additionally, NDI has led successful cultural exchanges around the world, including China, Africa, and Switzerland, and has reached over two million students total. NDI Executive Director Traci Lester credits this success to the program's emphasis on joy. "When you see the children performing and see their faces, you're instantly blown away by how happy everybody is. Then you add the teachers inspiring the children to find that inner spark, [and] you see that the recipe is tremendous."
This evening, the show begins after d'Amboise addresses the audience; his sweet, graceful composure sets the stage for what's to be a night nothing short of inspiring. First up is an art history presentation on the historical context of Medusa from renowned artist Ann McCoy. With a media-rich slideshow, McCoy brings to life the larger sphere of Medusa's influence through the shared importance of an arts education. Says McCoy, "In dance and theater, the children are part of an imaginary world where body, mind, emotion, and soul unite. They become something bigger than themselves, and move between worlds."
And that's just what the children do after McCoy's presentation: they move between worlds. Donning colorful shirts and all of the joy in the tri-state area, a large group of students bound onto the stage, paying tribute to the city and culture they love so much. Exuberance radiates from every fingertip and strand of hair whirling through the air; their smiles and energy are contagious. As they project, I can't help but notice the boundless passion they all seem to feel: for the versatile choreography, for the spotlight, and for each other.
The evening continues with gorgeous cameos from New York City Ballet principal dancers Sterling Hyltin, Teresa Reichlen, and Ask la Cour, including a personal favorite pas de deux from "Agon." On any other night, the striking talent of these three superstars would be the main attraction. But even these accomplished professionals are in awe of the children. "[The children] just dance their hearts out," says Hyltin. "It reminds me why I love to dance, it makes me excited to go into work tomorrow." la Cour agrees. "While I was watching the kids, [I realized] there is nothing better for them. What they take away from this is immense ... they can use it for the rest of their lives."
But the pièce de résistance is the evening's dance tribute to Medusa. With a somber mood, dramatic lighting, and the commitment of all the student dancers, the group brings the theatricality with their facial expressions and body postures, none more so than "Medusa" herself, a young dancer named Maya. Donning a serpentine headdress, she carries herself with poise far beyond her ten years of age, and brings drama and tension to every calculated step downstage. Her commitment to her craft couldn't be clearer. "I'll always have a special passion for dance, " says Maya. "Dancing is important because ... it helps you connect with people."
Witnessing the unadulterated joy the program brought makes this a night I'll not soon forget. Because regardless of the dance industry's hardships and uncertainties, NDI has managed to capture all that is pure about dancing, and it will continue to spread that goodness for generations to come. But d'Amboise sums it up best: "Dance, as well as music, are inventions by our species to express emotion."
Photos courtesy of National Dance Institute.