“My interest, my belief, my obsession is that the arts liberate a person’s heart and mind to all kinds of possibilities.”—Jacques d’Amboise.
I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone quite like Jacques d’Amboise again. Jacques was so full of life and so engaged with whomever crossed his path at any given moment. And lucky me, I was one of those people! I took for granted that he’d live forever; but sadly he passed away on May 2, 2021. He would have turned 87 on July 28.
I was incredibly fortunate to work with him during two events that I produced in Rockefeller Center as Director of the Christopher Awards. Our first encounter came before, during and after the 53rd annual Christopher Awards gala in February 2002 when we celebrated Jacques with a James Keller Award. Named for Father James Keller, the Maryknoll Missioner who founded The Christophers in 1945, the James Keller Award honors individuals who contribute in a meaningful way to the well-being of young people.
For his visionary role introducing children to the limitless potential of the arts through dance via his National Dance Institute (NDI), Jacques d’Amboise did indeed merit the James Keller Award in 2002. He was thrilled to attend the gala and accept his award in person.
Thanks to my familiarity with Emile Ardolino’s Peabody, Emmy® and Oscar®-winning film about Jacques’ work with kids in New York City schools, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, I was excited to make his James Keller presentation the centerpiece of our Christopher Awards ceremony and the night a memorable one for Jacques and our audience. I decided to surprise him with a performance by some of his marvelously talented young dance students.
His NDI associate and I arranged a secret rehearsal at the gala site a week before the event. And on the night of the gala, we managed to sequester the kids in an undisclosed green room with tasty snacks and beverages during the initial book and TV Christopher Award presentations until the time came for them to hit their marks.
When his kids danced down the aisles and onto the stage in performance that night, they clearly surprised and overjoyed Jacques, inspiring him to give a wonderfully animated speech framed by a story about one of his memorable encounters in the New York City subway. He never stopped moving across that stage. You could see why street smart NYC kids loved and danced their hearts out for him. He was the Pied Piper, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and a diehard New Yorker all rolled into one!
In fact, he so enjoyed the evening that he sent me and each individual member of my Awards’ staff handwritten thank you letters (not notes!), and was excited to come back two years later to graciously present the next James Keller Award to our 2004 honoree, Sesame Street’s Caroll (Big Bird) Spinney. And so we were blessed with another enchanted evening with the endearing Jacques d’Amboise!
As a child growing up on the mean streets of Manhattan, Jacques d’Amboise had few prospects. “Gang member” seemed to be his destiny–or so his mother feared. To keep him out of harm’s way, she enrolled him in his sister’s dance classes. The fidgety kid was transformed. He out-jumped the rest of his classmates, and the rest is history.
By age 17, d’Amboise was a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet; and, by 20, he was featured in movies (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; Carousel) and on Broadway (Shinbone Alley). He created roles in works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Sir Frederick Ashton, and choreographed as well.
In the fall of 1976, he took a risky new step. He persuaded three New York City school principals to allow him to teach dance classes on school premises. Inspired by his own childhood experiences and challenges, d’Amboise felt that dance was the perfect vehicle to steer kids in a healthy direction. His mission was simple yet unwavering: “The arts should be an integral part of every child’s education,” he said.
“Dance is the most immediate and accessible of the arts because it involves your own body,” added d’Amboise. “When you learn to move your body on a note of music, it’s exciting. You have taken control of your body and, by learning to do that, you discover that you can take control of your life.”
From its humble beginnings in New York City schools almost a half century ago, his National Dance Institute (NDI) has awakened the creative spirits of some two million children worldwide. More than 6,500 NYC children participate in NDI’s in-school programs annually. The extent of d’Amboise’s extraordinary impact via the NDI was never more evident than in Emile Ardolino’s hour-long NBC documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, and the 86-minute PBS sequel, Who’s Dancin’ Now?, directed by Judy Kinberg.
In He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (1983), d’Amboise molds a ragtag band of youngsters with two left feet into an exhilarating dance troupe. In the sequel,Who’s Dancin’ Now? (1999), those NDI students, by then grown up, wax poetic about d’Amboise’s innovative dance training and its dramatic effect on their lives. Through discipline, hard work and perseverance, his students acquired a sense of self-worth, a pride of achievement and an expanded curiosity for life and the arts no matter what their skill level, physical and emotional challenges, age, race, sexual orientation or socio-economic background.
It was obvious to me that Jacques d’Amboise was not simply an extraordinary dancer and teacher of dance, but a student and teacher of life itself. “Each time you’re with somebody, this is the most important person,” Jacques reflected. “Everybody has their own story and tragedy and joy. Everybody has dreams.”
“We don’t realize what an important word now is, this one second while we’re still breathing and in control,” he added. “I’m with you now. Five minutes from now, I may not be here.”
Jacques d’Amboise may not be with us now, but I imagine he is having a ball in Heaven teaching some flatfooted Angels how to dance. I was blessed to have spent more than “five minutes” with Jacques and to experience the sheer joy he exuded in the moment and the lessons born of his never-ending curiosity about the people he met, the places he visited and life in general.
He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ and Who’s Dancin’ Now? are available on VHS and DVD from Amazon.com and (shorter versions) on YouTube. For further information about the films’ availability and NDI programs, contact The National Dance Institute Center for Learning & the Arts (NDI), 217 West 147 Street, New York, NY 10039. 212-226-0083. http://www.nationaldance.org –Judith Trojan