NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of one of the nation's greatest dancers, a man who has had a positive impact on thousands of New York kids, Jacques d'Amboise.
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Jacques d’Amboise never misses a chance to use dance to teach, and you don't have to be one of his students to get a lesson.
Where others see obstacles, d'amboise sees opportunities. Being a dancer among gangs while growing up in his tough Washington Heights neighborhood? No problem. Creating a New York institution for thousands of kids, the National Dance Institute? Gotta do it. Taking some of those kids to perform in Shanghai? Sure.
But it's not dance just for dance sake - it's dance to make a connection.
But asking Jacques d'Amboise to explain how he does all of these things?
“I have it very hard to think why I do things,” he says. “I’m a total extrovert, never an introvert. The minute I start thinking, ÎWhy did I do that?’ I fall asleep. I lose interest.”
Lose interest? It's hard to believe that d'Amboise ever loses interest in anything. At 70, he's lost none of his curiosity about people and places and customs all over the world.
Imagine a great baseball player nearing the end of an elite career, establishing a little league, and eventually becoming better known and rewarded for that than his feats on the field. That's Jacques d'Amboise, one of this nation's greatest dancers.
For the last 30 years, he’s been the driving force behind the National Dance Institute, a program that has served thousands of New York kids of all shapes and sizes and colors and backgrounds.
"It’s not Jacques d’Amboise’s Dance Company, it's National Dance Institute,” he says. “’National’ because it's all over the country; Îdance’ because dance is the window to the other arts, and it’s what I knew best; and Îinstitute’ because it has to do with learning.”
This is not a program for future ballet dancers - it's a program for future everythings. The steps may be the assignment, but the lessons taught are life lessons about confidence and expectations.
"Everybody needs at least one person in their life to say, ÎI believe in you, you're wonderful, I trust you, I love you, do you need help?’ Everybody needs that," says d’Amboise.
If you want to calculate Jacques d'Amboise's effect on New York kids, ask around. Somebody you know, at home, in the neighborhood, at work, has been in the National Dance Institute. D'Amboise runs into people who have been in his shows all of the time, sometimes on a crowded subway.
“There's this guy, he’s skinny with black hair pulled back in a pony tail, and he's got some piercings and he's got these big black eyelashes and black eyes, and he's staring at me,” he says. “And then I begin to notice that there's more room around me than there is around the other people because little by little, people are moving away from me, giving me space, because something's going to happen, and definitely around him, right? And all of a sudden he says, ÎI was a tomato.’"
It’s not your average guy who doesn't finish high school and still gets honored for his "genius." Jacques d'Amboise is no average guy.
Among the numerous honors he's received, a 1990 Macarthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius award.” Can he ever pull the genius card out at home and say, “I can’t take out the trash today because I’m a genius?”
“No, no, no, I don’t,” he says. “It's all baloney.”
He was born Joseph Ahearn, a bit more of a common name in Washington Heights than Jacques d'Amboise. But at a certain point his mother decided that her maiden name was going to be the family name for Jacques and his siblings.
"The reason given was so that all of us who were already in the performing arts, it would be a good name for the performing arts,” he says. “And of course my mother loved the D, apostrophe, capital A - the nobility. [It’s] so much baloney. They were a bunch of peasant farmers from Canada.”
His neighborhood had gangs, but not too many dancers. To win them over, d'Amboise used a technique he would later employ to draw in tough New York kids - he made it a competition.
Under the heading of “You can take the gang out of Washington Heights·" d'Amboise once snuck his buddies into a show at City Center.
“So the ballet's going on, and I come leaping in with eight other boys, and from the balcony [comes] whistles and everything like this, and Maria Tolshay, who's the star, is saying, ÎHeavens to Betsy - they love me tonight,’” he says.
D'Amboise joined the New York City Ballet at 15, a principal dancer at 17. He quickly became a star, dancing in the movies and all over the world.
But he wasn't always comfortable with the attention.
"My mother always - because she was Catholic and very religious - said, ÎBe careful of pride - it's the worst sin,’” he says. “It was very hard for me when someone said, ÎJacques, you were wonderful as a dancer.’ I said, ÎNo, tonight didn't go well.’ It took me a long time to shut up and say, ÎThank you. I'm so glad you like it.’”
D'Amboise danced for 35 years in the New York City Ballet before retiring in 1984 to concentrate on the National Dance Institute, a program he created to give New York kids an opportunity to dance. Have there had to be sacrifices along the way?
“The body,” he says. “It's so hard to go up and down steps. The body's a wreck."
He’s had six surgeries on his knees and feet. And the moves that brought him fame, especially the leaps that first attracted him as a kid in Washington Heights, they're but a memory now.
“It's like you were another person,” he says. “It's so far removed from my life now, and what I'm capable of."
He's been married to his wife Carolyn for 49 years. They have four grown children, including Charlotte, who has starred in shows like “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity.”
The ability to put one foot in front of the other and make it sing has taken Jacques d'Amboise from Washington Heights around the world. But who has time for such reflection? There are ideas to nourish, performances to create, lessons to be learned, lives to affect.
“I always look at the positive and not the negative,” he says. “It's a trap, the negative: If I had done this; Why didn't I do this? We could have done that. [I say] what are you doing right now?”
- Budd Mishkin