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Lifetime Achievement Award: Q & A with Jacques d'Amboise

Jacques with faculty at the National Dance Institute. Photo courtesy of NDI

Jacques d'Amboise talks with Dance Teacher contributing editor Kate Lydon about teaching dance in public schools, his boundless energy and what Mr. B thought about NDI.


Why do you think it's important for everyone to have the opportunity to learn to dance?

You go to school to learn. How can you consider yourself learned if you don't know anything about music, dance, theater and poetry or science and mathematics? The best way to learn about anything is to do it. Does that mean, if you take math and do science experiments in a lab, that you have to grow up to be a scientist or a physicist? No! You take math because it's important in your learning. Why aren't music, dance, poetry and theater part of the learning process in our school systems? And treated equally to other subjects? My belief is that you are not a learned person without knowing these aspects that describe what makes us human.

Do you have tricks for getting uninterested students involved and listening?

All learning is best done in the form of play. When there's an individual attempting to acquire the mastery of a skill and the teacher can turn the learning into a form of play that has to do with challenges, it works. The student has to achieve a higher level of excellence to play the game.

I'll give you an example: The mother says to her 10-year-old daughter, “Hey, it's your turn to put out the garbage." The little girls says, “Ah, Mom, I'm so tired! I've been playing all day. I don't want to put out the garbage." A child will play until she drops, if it's a game, so mother says, “What if you put out the garbage walking backwards and singing 'The Star Spangled Banner.' I bet you can do it, but if you can't do it, then your brother gets to try after you." Well the brother, who has been smirking about his sister having to put out the garbage, now wants to do it, and the girl can't wait to get up, walk backwards and sing as she takes the garbage out. Everything is learned by meeting challenges that are joyful. When doing something to pass a test with fear as the reason, you cram, you pass it, maybe, and you forget it as soon as you can. You hate the subject. But what if learning was joyful and exciting and passing tests was only part of this big game of discovering pathways toward excellence? That's what NDI strives to do.

What about working with kids who are having lots of trouble with the material?

Work to make sure that person is brought out of being the loser or the failure. He or she will be your most important success. Other students will look back and think: My teacher was strict, but he/she never gave up. Maybe one day I'll be the loser and my teacher won't give up on me.

You have always had this infectious energy. How important is that to you?

In science, the arts, on and offstage: If you make the formula for life, the first fluid you put into the beaker is energy. Without energy nothing happens.

What did Mr. Balanchine think about NDI?

Balanchine used to come to all the NDI performances. We would finish doing a big show and I would go to the cast party. Seven o'clock the next morning my phone would ring. “It's Balanchine," he would say. “Last night. Wonderful. Very important. Children learn about music and dance. The real thing. A performance with audience looking and they either applaud or boo." The last show he came to, when he was dying, he had written me a song. Oh, it's so beautiful. It's in my book. I had commissioned it and given him a $500 check, and he tore it up. And by the way, that song describes him. He was like light.

Kate Lydon teaches for American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and is editor in chief of Dance Spirit.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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