Most school performances are meant for parents, grandparents, and long-suffering siblings of members of the cast. But there is one end-of-term extravaganza that draws crowds of enthusiastic audience members each spring, many of whom bear no relation to the young dancers on stage.
It is probably safe to say that the annual “Event of the Year” at Trenton’s War Memorial has never failed to inspire a standing ovation. The Trenton Education Dance Institute is a satellite program of the National Dance Institute, founded in 1976 by former ballet star Jacques d’Amboise. TEDI offers dance instruction to Trenton area public school children culminating in a professional production at the end of the school year.
This year’s show, “Here’s the Scoop,” open to the public and free with ticket, will be performed at Patriot Theater at the War Memorial on Thursday, May 24. Some 225 Trenton public school students, including the fifth grade classes from Hedgepeth/Williams and Luis Munoz-Rivera schools, are taking part in the production. A professional orchestra accompanies the cast, which also includes chorus members and kindergartners from other public schools in Trenton.
TEDI has been staging the show for 18 years. It is always a hit. While family members cheer and scream for their children, others in the audience get caught up in the excitement of watching youthful performers revel in the sheer joy of movement and the sense of accomplishment that comes with preparing for a professional production.
Now 73, d’Amboise grew up on the rough streets of the Bronx. While performing later in masterworks by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, he never forgot his humble beginnings and the way the arts changed his life.
A born teacher, d’Amboise began leading classes for boys, including friends of his sons, while still with the ballet company. His aim was not to create professional dancers. He simply wanted to motivate children by giving them the opportunity to experience the arts and the discipline they require. It had worked for him.
“When you teach children to move on a note of music, it is so exciting to them,” d’Amboise says during a rehearsal. “They learn to take control of their bodies, and that shows them that they can take control of their lives. It changes everything.”
D’Amboise nods toward a boy rehearsing with full concentration and obvious joy. “Look at him,” d’Amboise says. “They thought he was autistic. Then he started dancing, and he blossomed. Now, he’s doing so well. You can see it.”
The National Dance Institute is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. In affiliate programs like TEDI, children in grades three to five are the central focus. Eighty percent of them come from low-income communities. The most dedicated and gifted continue with the program to receive advanced instruction as part of the Celebration and SWAT (Scholarships for the Willing, Achieving and Talented) teams.
Graduates of NDI have gone on to careers in finance, education, and many other fields. Among them is Dufftin Garcia, the artistic director of TEDI and one of d’Amboise’s most important success stories. Garcia’s history with NDI dates back to when he was a fifth grader in New York’s Washington Heights. After pursuing a dance career, he began teaching in the Trenton program and was named its artistic director by d’Amboise in 2002.
“I have worked with almost two million children in the past 30 years, and so many of them, like Dufftin, I think of as my own sons and daughters,” d’Amboise says. “It’s because he went through the program himself that he is such a great teacher. We have had good teachers before but none like him.”
D’Amboise has been celebrated for his work with children over the past three decades. A string of awards including a MacArthur “Genius” grant, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the National Medal of Arts have come his way. An inspiring documentary, “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin,’” was made about him and the program in 1983. He danced with the New York City Ballet for 34 years. His wife, Carolyn George, was also a member of the company. His son, Christopher, danced with the troupe and went on to become a choreographer; his daughter, Charlotte, is an actress and dancer who is currently appearing as Cassie in the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line” and has just been nominated for a Tony award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.
TEDI’s beginnings date from a visit d’Amboise paid to Trenton in 1990. Those on hand to watch him work a room full of children at the Trenton Board of Education headquarters that day were dumbfounded by the speed and ease with which he engaged them. Within minutes, the charismatic d’Amboise had youngsters stomping and jumping in unison and outdoing themselves to please him.
What began as a two-week program has grown into a regular part of the curriculum in participating schools. Two more schools are anticipated for next year. Funding comes from such organizations as the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Bunbury Company. The program has been supported in the past by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts but is currently not on its roster. A grant for the next fiscal year is pending with the agency.
The students spend all year learning dance routines for productions which have a specific theme tied into the academic curriculum. This year’s show pays tribute to popular legends of jazz, Motown, pop, Latin, and classical music. Gregory Green, a fifth-grade teacher at Hedgepeth/Williams, has been teaching his students about Tito Puente in conjunction with the show.
“My involvement is to take what the TEDI staff shares with the students in dance and bring it into what we’re studying,” he says. “It’s curriculum-based, a wonderful opportunity for a teacher to integrate the entire curriculum.”
Watching his students work with TEDI for the past seven years, Green has noticed remarkable progress in some who have special challenges. “Every year you may have a child that is behaviorally or academically taxed but is very excited about the dance process,” he says. “All kids aren’t academic. But some of them have a chance to show their athleticism here. No matter where praise comes from, it makes them feel very accomplished.”
TEDI classes are not easy. Students are expected to pay attention and learn routines quickly. With the prospect of a full-fledged production looming at the end of the year, most respond to the challenge. But there are those who have no interest in performing. TEDI makes accommodations for them.
“Every now and then you may have a child who may suffer from stage fright,” says Green. “It’s rare. But what happens is that they become production assistants. TEDI always finds something for that child to do. They really cover the bases.”
D’Amboise turned over the artistic directorship of NDI a few years ago to Ellen Weinstein, who ran the Trenton program in its early years. But he is still an active participant who visits affiliate programs and takes an active part in the main, New York production (this year’s 30th anniversary program is Saturday through Monday, June 16 to 18, at LaGuardia High School Concert Hall). He is being honored by TEDI at the May 24 performance at Patriot Theater.
Clearly, d’Amboise is happiest when teaching a routine to a bunch of eager kids. At one rehearsal this year, he asked Garcia if he could spend a few minutes with the students. Hobbling at first because of knee injuries incurred by years of punishing dancing, he straightened up as the students caught on to the series of steps he devised. As children over the years have been energized by him, here he was inspired by them.
“I’m old,” he told them. “I sit around and watch TV and eat junk food and get fat. So this is a big treat for me. Thank you!”
Here’s the Scoop, Thursday, May 24, 7 p.m. Trenton Education Dance Institute, Patriots Theater, War Memorial. Professionally choreographed performance by students from the Trenton Public schools. Free with ticket. Preferred seating gala tickets include admission to the post-performance reception honoring ballet legend Jacques d’Amboise, $30. 609-638-1556