Free dance lessons teach NYC students to think on their feet

July 20, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
The National Dance Institute has been sending dance instructors into New York City schools for nearly 40 years, teaching kids who would otherwise have little access to arts education. Jeffrey Brown reports on how founder Jacques d’Amboise grew the institute into a city-wide force that continues to give children new confidence and ease.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For nearly 40 years, the National Dance Institute in New York has given free lessons to New York public school students.

And, as Jeffrey Brown found out, these kids are learning some incredible steps. Take a look.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fifth graders at Public School 2 in New York’s Chinatown are learning to think on their feet. They’re among 6,000 New York City schoolchildren who receive dance instruction each week, at no cost, but, according to their teacher, at great benefit.

SHUEN LIN, Teacher, P.S. 2: They find a different form to express themselves. They find their self-confidence, and you really see them becoming their own person.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the work of the National Dance Institute, a nonprofit that’s been sending instructional teams into public schools here for nearly 40 years, filling a gap where school budgets fall short, filling a need, says Shuen Lin, where educational priorities are elsewhere.

SHUEN LIN: In our school, and in any school right now, we’re so focused on high-stakes testing. And kids do nothing but basic reading, math, and reading and math. They sit so much in my classroom. And this provides an opportunity for them to not really just get away from learning, because they’re still learning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen Weinstein is NDI’s creative director and a longtime instructor.

ELLEN WEINSTEIN, National Dance Institute: The children learn grit and tenacity and to take chances, and to learn that it’s OK to make a mistake, because if they work hard and they commit to something, they’re going to be successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Assistant principal Joanna Cohen:

JOANNA COHEN, Assistant Principal: Ninety-six percent of our kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And many of our students are very recent immigrants to the United States. All I can say is there’s not enough of it. Schools desperately, children desperately need more.

JACQUES D’AMBOISE, Choreographer: I always thought I would be either a doctor or an archaeologist or a crook, a really good crook.


JEFFREY BROWN: The force behind all this is a legend in the world of dance, Jacques d’Amboise, who calls himself the New Yorker with a fancy French name.

In fact, d’Amboise grew up in hard circumstances in 1930s and ’40s New York. His mother started him in ballet at 7 as a way to keep him out of trouble. He left school at 15 to pursue dance full-time and, at just age 17, became a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet.

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: If you think back, why are you doing what you’re doing, it’s those early influences, your teachers especially, and your parents, that kind of write the scripts that you end up acting out the rest of your life.

JEFFREY BROWN: D’Amboise would dance on stages around the world for decades. And, in 1976, even while still with the New York City Ballet, he began going into public schools to offer free lessons to students.

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: I know how it transformed me. And I never paid a nickel or a dime for a lesson. I had free all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: The institute grew into a citywide force, with a headquarters in Harlem. There, every Saturday, children selected by their NDI instructors come for additional higher-level training, also free, in preparation for a year-end performance.

D’Amboise still comes down to watch and offer a few pointers.

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: It’s the best theater. It’s better than Broadway to watch these fabulous New York City children. It sets my Saturdays off like having a birthday party.

JEFFREY BROWN: The organization has been around long enough that former students, like Dufftin Garcia, have themselves become instructors. Garcia was just eight when he was selected to join NDI’s Saturday program. He says his schoolmates didn’t make it easy at first.

DUFFTIN GARCIA, National Dance Institute: They totally made fun of me and they called me twinkle toes. And of course I quit because I couldn’t handle the pressure. I thought it just wasn’t for me, and I went into martial arts, thinking, maybe I can get my manhood back that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Distant memories now. Garcia found his way back to dance and uses laughter and his own experience to put children at ease.

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: You make it so that the ones who don’t feel like they’re cool, you make it cool. The ones who don’t feel like they’re maybe comfortable, you make them comfortable. Those that you feel like maybe it’s just not for them, you make it so that they understand that it’s for everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eleven-year-old Jonathan Rosario had clearly decided dancing is for him.

I was watching and the teacher was saying attitude, attitude, right? What does that mean to you, attitude?

JONATHAN ROSARIO, Student: Like put more of your own spice in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your own what, spice? What does that mean?

JONATHAN ROSARIO: Like your own movement. Like, when you walk, you go one, two, three, four, five.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jonathan’s mother, Jessica Candelario, danced in school, and says her son has gained friends and confidence from the program.

JESSICA CANDELARIO, Mother of Jonathan: He talks about going to college, and, mommy, I want to do this dancing, I want to go for this. I’m like, do it.

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: Children will play until they drop, right? Ask them to put out the garbage, I’m too tired, mommy. I’m too tired.

But if you say, can you put out the garbage walking backwards and then hop on one leg, or singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” make play and testing part of the game, and people will kill themselves to be able to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: A glimmer in his eye, a lightness to his step, d’Amboise told us how dance almost killed him, nearly every bodily part broken or replaced at one time or another.

What keeps you going now at nearly 81?

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: Well, breathing and a heartbeat, hopefully, hopefully.


JEFFREY BROWN: From Harlem, New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.