One of the country's most successful dance organizations marks its 25th anniversary this year. The National Dance Institute, a new York based company dedicated to teaching and motivating school children through the power of dance, has impacted more than half a million students since its inception in 1976.
Its success is largely due to the talent and tenacity of its founder, internationally known dancer and choreographer, Jacques d'Amboise. But a year that was meant to focus on anniversary celebration plans was temporarily derailed by the events of September 11.
The National Dance Institute, located in lower Manhattan, is just blocks away from where the World Trade Center collapsed, killing more than 2,800 people. NDI founder Jacques d'Amboise lost friends, neighbors and other people close to him in the attacks, including the wife of his long-time stage manager, Sam Ellis. On one blustery winter afternoon, Mr. D'Amboise rehearsed a dance with more than 100 children of varying ages, ethnic backgrounds and physical abilities. They were getting ready to perform in a theater, a dance choreographed especially for Sam Ellis, in memory of his wife, Val.
"One of the greatest men I've ever met, Sam Ellis has been our stage manager for 15 years. And he's a 'Santa Claus' without a reindeer and sled. He's a Santa Claus that's among the people wandering around, just being good. And he runs our show, and he had this extraordinary wife, Val, who was not your ordinary woman. She was a 'big shot' trader at Cantor Fitzgerald and she was also one of the kookiest, funniest, wonderful forms of womanhood that you can imagine. And he said goodbye to her and that was it. Gone. And so he's very brave and everybody loves him. And we loved her, and so I was thinking about it I started thinking of this rhythm," Jacques d'Amboise says.
In 1976, Jacques d'Amboise, who was still principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, wanted to give back to young people the gift of dance that had opened up so many opportunities to him. His idea for the National Dance Institute was not a school to train professional dancers although some students have gone on to be so but a place where dance would be taught as a means to engage children and motivate them toward achieving excellence in every aspect of their lives.
"They respond to sunlight, rather than the dark, they respond to music and dance and people who smile and put their arms around them and say 'you're terrific. Let's do that again. Try harder next time. Can you keep with me? Let's see. This constant challenge to be better that is the heart of being an artist, and the way the arts were invented to touch our deepest emotions," he says.
Students at the National Dance Institute come from every walk of life, economic status, and include children with special physical and emotional needs. While the Institute started out by teaching dance classes to public school students in the New York metropolitan area, today, it has expanded its reach to hundreds of schools nationwide and around the world. It boasts half a million alumni who have performed everywhere from local venues to the White House.
In 25 years, Jacques d'Amboise, who was already recognized as one of the great classical dancers of our time, has been honored with countless awards for his contributions to the arts, education, and his work in film, including an Academy Award, six Emmy Awards and a Kennedy Center Honor. Mr. d'Amboise talked about how the mood of his Lower Manhattan neighborhood has changed since September, in some ways for the better.
"People are much nicer. I make a point now, of saying to a person any person, but particularly someone who looks Middle Eastern, at the newsstand, 'Well good morning to you! I look him right at him and we make eye contact. And I make sure he sees that I'm real. I've always done that, but I see I'm doing it more now. Everybody is," Mr. d'Amboise says.
And, about working with children, some of whom still have nightmares about the attacks in New York which were broadcast on television, Jacques d'Amboise says, "I'll give you an example. I go out to Chattanooga, Tennessee. And I'm going to a day care center where all these three to five-year-olds are and there's 12 of them. And they're told that a famous dancer is coming. And I come in and I say - and these are little three to five-year-olds, they're homeless - 'My name is Jacques. Say it.' And I hear these little tentative voices, say 'Jacques.' Then I say, 'No, No - Jacques!!' Then a bellow from these children! And I say, 'I've just come from New York City on an airplane to be with you.' And it's as if they stopped breathing. They looked at each other and one by one, they got up and ran to me and petted me. So, just think of 12 little tiny children, running at you and grabbing you around the knees. It's like being tackled! I fell over and they were all on top of me laughing! I was covered with children giggling and laughing. Now you see what that is. It's an emotion of fear and sadness and empathy followed by its relief laughter 'He fell down!' That's what we do. We come in and say 'We're all here and some of you may have a gray cloud raining over your heart. But let's hold that a minute, because it's important. Now, let's get those clouds away with a dance. Now, will you play us some happy music? Then, that's it, don't' talk about it any more."
Just as the dance for stage manager Sam Ellis demonstrates the National Dance Institute's commitment to its friends and community, so is its commitment to the activities planned for this year's 25th anniversary celebration. In March, NDI dancers, past and present, staff and supporters are participating in the annual "Dance-A-Thon" a fundraiser showcasing original choreography ranging from hip hop to jazz. And, as has been the custom for 25 years, the National Dance Institute's "Event of the Year" will involve 2,000 children in a professionally produced performance. This year's production is a tribute to New York City, called, "The Spirit of New York." The dances, accompanied by music of Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and George M. Cohan, is a celebration of the events and the indomitable spirit of the people that helped shape this remarkable city.