Christina Cheakalos
June 17, 2002 12:00 PM

Like many great artists, Jacques d’Amboise is a perfectionist—and seldom shy about expressing himself when his standards go unmet. He almost made a doozy of a scene in Madison Square Garden a few years back. During a 1994 performance by 2,000 New York City schoolkids he had taught to dance, a troubled 11-year-old named Michael, who never spoke, suddenly broke formation. “I start running onstage to tell him, ‘Get back,’ and he’s dancing like mad and screaming, ‘I’m so happy! Thank you!'” recalls d’Amboise, 67, with tears in his eyes. “I backed away and let it happen. He was experiencing passion.”

To d’Amboise, Michael’s blissful missteps are a lasting reminder of the transformative power of dance. D’Amboise himself is a former gang member who jeté’d his way out of a tough neighborhood and into an illustrious career with New York City Ballet. But his larger legacy may rest in what he has achieved since leaving the stage. This summer d’Amboise’s nonprofit National Dance Institute—which has introduced his art form to 75,000 elementary schoolers across the country, from inner cities to Indian reservations—is wrapping up its 25th academic year. “It started small,” he says, “and became a runaway train to heaven.”

He’s still at the controls. “Jacques reached out to give children an opportunity they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” says actor Tony Randall, a longtime pal whose 5-year-old daughter Julia is learning the free-form jazz style that d’Amboise created for NDI. Many of his students speak of discovering a new sense of their own potential that helps them in school and in life. And a few decide to keep on dancing beyond the 30-week introductory course (offered during school hours, mostly to fourth and fifth graders). “I used to just sit in my house watching TV,” says Anthony Reyes, who started NDI at age 10, then joined the program’s elite performance troupe, the Celebration Team, and graduated this year at 15. “When I’m onstage, I’m on cloud nine.” Adds alumnus Anthony Rue, now 20 and a professional hip-hop dancer in concerts and videos: “NDI gave me the foundation for everything. Jacques was serious when it came to work. He taught us discipline.”

That was a value d’Amboise learned from his French-Canadian mother, Georgette, whose own family’s poverty forced her to quit school and go to work by age 12 at a Lewis-ton, Maine, shoe factory. “She wanted her four children to be educated, to recite poetry and play musical instruments,” says d’Amboise.

After Jacques’s father, telegraph operator Andrew Ahearn, moved the family from Massachusetts to West 163rd Street in Manhattan, Georgette started 7-year-old Jacques on ballet lessons. He showed such promise that within a year he was admitted to the School of American Ballet, run by the great Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine. By then, Jacques, like most of his peers, had also joined a local gang, doing lookout work while the older boys shoplifted and broke into cars. When fellow members heard about his sideline, they confronted him as he exited the subway. “They said, ‘What’s this ballet stuff?’ I said, ‘It’s great; there’s a guy who can jump five feet in the air,’ and I showed them,” he recalls, laughing. Soon he had them trying out moves on the street.

At 15, d’Amboise quit school to join New York City Ballet, also run by Balanchine. (Two of Jacques’s siblings were briefly in Balanchine’s troupe as well, and the whole family even adopted Georgette’s tony-sounding surname.) Two years later he met his wife, fellow dancer Carolyn George, now 74, whom he credits for the success of their 46-year union. “I only got out of being a teenager mentally at 50,” he says. The couple have four children: George, 45, who teaches survival training in Aspen; Christopher, 42, a former New York City Ballet dancer who now writes musicals; and 38-year-old twins Catherine, a mother of two in Santa Fe, and Charlotte, a dancer in the Broadway musical Contact. “Whenever Dad was around,” says Charlotte, “life went up a few notches.”

Balanchine apparently agreed—he made young Jacques his lead male dancer. But in 1976, knowing that his performing days were numbered, the 42-year-old d’Amboise (who retired in ’84, a year after his mentor’s death) decided it was time to share what he had learned. “I had never paid for a class, everything was given to me,” he says. NDI was his way of giving back. The institute started with a few classes in New York City public schools. Today it has an annual budget of $2.5 million, and d’Amboise, who lives in a rambling Manhattan apartment with Carolyn, concentrates on raising funds—sometimes in unlikely places. In 1999 he hiked the 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail, stopping off to teach in small towns from Maine to Georgia and collecting $500,000. His favorite moment came when he talked two hikers into joining him in a spontaneous pas de trois. “We were slapping mosquitoes, whooping, laughing and dancing,” he says. “Then I hugged them and said bye. I still had five miles to go.”

Christina Cheakalos

Diane Herbst in New York City

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