Pa.-A great artist never loses the ability to leave
his audience breathless.
d'Amboise. The man who decades ago became this
country's first male ballet star, who as a leading
dancer with the New York City Ballet for nearly 40
years awed audiences around the world. He is streaming
up a steep sandstone slope on the northern edge of the
Blue Ridge Mountains. And you're panting to keep up.
Every now and then you catch sight of him slipping
through the trees, his hair as gray as the rock.
D'Amboise is halfway
through his quest to hike the Appalachian Trail, the
rugged footpath that traverses 14 states. Nearly four
months of tromping through mud and stone, fighting off
black flies and nursing blisters has only quickened
his pace. He's got those famously long legs, after
all--never mind that he's had numerous surgeries on
both knees and they crackle like popcorn when he bends
Never mind his arthritic
ankles and his surgically webbed toes, sewn together
to give them stability after repeated dance injuries.
Never mind that some years ago, on another wilderness
adventure, he lost most of an index finger to an
infected spider bite.
D'Amboise--as he'll be
the first to admit--is bullheaded. Bossy. Also
relentlessly, unnaturally upbeat. And determined. He's
hiking the trail's 2,160 miles to fulfill a long-held
ambition--he's been an avid hiker since retiring from
dancing 15 years ago. But mostly he's doing it to
raise money for the National Dance Institute (NDI),
the program he founded in 1976 to teach schoolchildren
to dance. Along the way he's making a few dozen stops
at schools, community organizations, even a prison, to
teach the masses a perky little jig he choreographed,
dubbed the "Trail Dance." He celebrated his 65th
birthday this summer by teaching the dance to graduate
students at Harvard.
The man who calls
himself "the Johnny Appleseed of dance" is aiming to
draw attention to NDI, to the physical fun and mental
rigor required for dance and, by extension, the other
arts. He hopes that donations to NDI will follow, so
he can train teachers around the country in his
methods for getting underprivileged kids, blind kids
and those with other handicaps to move freely and
fearlessly. (So far, approximately $250,000 has come
in, mostly from people logging on to d'Amboise's Web
site: www.ndi4all.org.) He plans to reach the trail's
end at Springer Mountain in Georgia just before
He's slept in
rodent-infested shelters. He slogged through 20 miles
of muck during the rains of Hurricane Floyd. Mile by
mile, d'Amboise has been steadily approaching the
Washington area. This week he's dancing at the Kennedy
Center with children from Anacostia's Draper
Elementary School, where d'Amboise has had a residency
program for the past decade. Today he'll be at
Annapolis's Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts
getting midshipmen and others to jig, before heading
back on the trail.
Park rangers at the base
of Mount Katahdin in Maine jigged with d'Amboise as he
began his hike in May, accompanied by his 42-year-old
son, George, the oldest of d'Amboise's four children.
Most Appalachian Trail hikers start in late winter at
the southern tip of the trail. The weather is milder
and the terrain friendlier. But
d'Amboise--typically--decided to do it the hard way.
He and his son figured if they got the harshest part
over with--Maine's desolate Hundred Mile Wilderness,
followed by the dreaded wind-scoured White Mountains
of New Hampshire--they'd stand a better chance of
sticking it out. (Each year, under 15 percent of the
3,000 or so who start the AT, as it's affectionately
known, complete it.)
So there they were in
the early-morning chill, d'Amboise, his son and the
rangers swinging one another around by the elbows like
it was a big happy hoedown, singing out: "Hel-lo,
stranger, stepping along together. Hel-lo, stranger,
stepping along with a friend. . . ." (D'Amboise also
came up with the words and the music.)
distinctively raspy, Jimmy Durante voice was hoarser
than usual; he'd come down with bronchitis. Before he
reached Katahdin's summit, a storm hit, spewing rain
and thunder on the hikers. He was warned to turn back
and wait a day. He didn't. It took d'Amboise seven
hours to reach the top, at which point he drew himself
up--his lanky frame was now the highest point in
Maine, in the midst of an electrical storm--howled
into the fog, danced a solitary jig on the rock and
crept slowly, achingly down the other side. (The
downhills are murder on his knees.)
Every dancer knows pain.
In his years of performing, d'Amboise had his share of
sprains, tears, twisted tendons and jammed joints.
"I've been sore all my life from dancing," he shrugs.
"It's my natural state."
You might even say some
dancers are addicted to pain. Mikhail Baryshnikov
endures three hours of physical therapy before each
performance, and dances in knee braces. Ballerina
Suzanne Farrell kept dancing after hip replacement
So what's a couple of
burning lungs, a tormenting rash from poison ivy,
bleeding bug bites and a banged up elbow or two?
Dancing in the
D'Amboise credits ballet
with saving him from the criminal-minded gangs of his
youth. So would his mother, who sent him to dance
classes along with his older sisters to keep him off
the streets of Manhattan. This was in the 1940s, and
not too many boys were taking ballet. But d'Amboise,
who'd fallen in love with the physicality and
structure of the art form, was undeterred.
"I never acted as if it
was anything but great and exciting," he says. "You
remember Tom Sawyer painting the fence? Imagine if
he'd said, 'Oh, this is terrible. It's so boring.' But
no--he said, 'This is great! Too bad you can't do
this! Oh, all right, you can paint, but only if you
give me your apple.' You see? I used the Tom Sawyer
approach. I'd show the other kids the steps and
challenge them to do them."
Who'd have thought that
tough, wiry little Joe Ahearn would become the
standard-bearer of the elite art of classical dance?
But who better to encompass the postwar merging of
European refinement and Yankee cool? The son of a
French Canadian mother and Irish American father,
d'Amboise was born Joseph Jacques Ahearn. The whole
family took on Georgette d'Amboise's lofty-sounding
maiden name after Jacques and his sisters became
members of the New York City Ballet. But it was
d'Amboise's all-American athleticism, his quick,
powerful limbs and extroverted personality that won
him international acclaim.
D'Amboise caught the
attention of the great choreographer George
Balanchine, who invited him at the age of 15 to join
the New York City Ballet. Balanchine created some two
dozen roles for d'Amboise, in such masterpieces as
"Stars and Stripes," "Movements for Piano and
Orchestra" and "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." D'Amboise
also had roles in the films "Seven Brides for Seven
Brothers" and "Carousel."
Through it all, he never
forgot what the world of dance had brought to a New
York street kid. And he longed to pass it on.
This urge became a
steppingstone to a new career as the one in the
footlights was waning. While still performing,
d'Amboise started NDI to work primarily with boys, at
first. He'd hold forth in several schools at once,
choosing dozens of the most eager kids, drilling them
once a week in preparation for a big production at the
end of the year. But these weren't
kind of classes. Not with d'Amboise bounding around
the room, barking out steps in that foghorn voice,
sweeping the kids into jazz- and street-influenced
productions like the gangster tale "Fat City" and,
last spring, "Step-by-Step-by-Ellington."
After retiring from the
stage, many other Balanchine dancers have gone on to
found and run companies of their own--among them Maria
Tallchief, Edward Villella and Peter Martins, who took
over NYCB after Balanchine's death. Still others are
in demand as coaches of Balanchine's intricate
choreography. But d'Amboise left the ballet world
"I decided that even
though I could run any company I wanted to--and do it
well--I didn't want to," d'Amboise says. "It was
something that wouldn't challenge me. But going into a
school and having 50 minutes with assorted children
who may or may not want to dance! You don't have a
dancing studio. You have a hall or a rooftop or a
lunchroom or a corner of a gymnasium. And you have to
get 50 children excited about dance. And one boy goes
and puts his face in the corner and won't move. Right?
Now whaddaya do? This is challenging. And much more
D'Amboise estimates NDI
has taught more than half a million children in the
past 23 years, about 2,000 a year in the New York area
and thousands more in NDI residencies around the
country, like the one at Anacostia's Draper
"still leaves me flabbergasted," says Joseph A.
Carter, Draper's former principal. "He set very high
standards for the kids, and they saw they could be a
part of something very beautiful. Behavioral problems
were reversed--they disappeared. Attendance improved.
It was remarkable."
"Here's a man who could
be anywhere he wanted to be at any time he wanted,"
Carter continues, "and he chose to be with us. That
made us feel really special."
performed for d'Amboise on national television when
their teacher received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1995.
D'Amboise's work with NDI has won him acclaim to rival
his dancing years; among his other awards are the
National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur Fellowship. In
1984, the year d'Amboise officially retired from
dancing, a documentary on his work with children, "He
Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'," won an Oscar.
speed hike up Cove Mountain was merely his afternoon
activity. The day started with a 7:30 assembly at the
Milton Hershey School for disadvantaged kids in nearby
Hershey, Pa. D'Amboise, wearing a rumpled lipstick-red
jersey, khakis and sneakers without socks, is
carefully negotiating the steps up to the stage in the
school's auditorium. As hundreds of grade-school
children eye him dubiously--he's just been introduced
as a famous ballet star, and he couldn't look less
like a celebrity--d'Amboise shuffles stiffly up the
steps, leaning nearly horizontal to heave his legs up
over the lip of the stage.
"That introduction about
being one of the great dancers--that's for a fellow of
a long time ago," he announces breathlessly. "You'll
see as I struggle up these stairs, I can barely get
up. I used to be able to run and jump over a car. But
dancing on cement floors all those years--you get beat
Moments later, these
words are forgotten as he breaks down the Trail Dance
for a group of kids who have joined him onstage,
clapping out the rhythms, stomping heavily like he's
"To dah right, to dah
left, behind, in front!" he shouts, knees pumping.
The tape-recorded beat
of the jig is contagious, but one boy, the littlest
one up there, is getting flustered. Girls in the front
row are snickering. "Shsh!" d'Amboise chides them in a
stage whisper. "He'll get self-conscious. We're gonna
make him better." D'Amboise swoops the boy up in his
arms, polkas around with him on his hip, then sets him
down to swirl on his own.
A couple of hours later,
George d'Amboise and his father, now in shorts and a
torn T-shirt, have piled into the NDI van amid a
clutter of nylon rucksacks, wilted maps, mud-crusted
water bottles and sour laundry. Lately, the two have
been "slackpacking," meaning day hikes of 10 to 20
miles, toting only water and a boiled egg or two.
Someone meets them at the end of the day with a car to
take them to a bath and bed. As the trail heads into
more remote country--through Virginia, Tennessee and
especially the lofty Nantahala Mountains of North
Carolina--they'll again don fully provisioned packs
and bunk in the trail shelters.
"I'm eager to get on the
trail," d'Amboise says impatiently, as the van idles
in traffic. "If I'm not active I become a couch
potato, my mind stops, I become a blob." He jiggles
his knees and fusses over George, who won't be hiking
this stretch to let an infected blister heal.
At the trail head at
last, d'Amboise brushes past the FBI warning about
fugitive Eric Rudolph. He wastes no time warming up.
Jamming his hiking poles into the rocky earth with
each step, he quickly disappears into the trees. A
faint, breathy muttering accompanies the crunch,
crunch of his feet. D'Amboise keeps a steady pace by
humming ballet scores to himself.
"I've got a wonderful
repertoire--'Petrouschka,' 'Stars and Stripes,' " he
calls out over his shoulder. He sings out a march.
"Bum bum, ba dee da BUM-BUM-BUM. Rum pum, ba dee da
bum ba bum. . . . You feel the downbeat? It's one,
one, one, one." He pumps his right hand like a
conductor wielding a baton.
"Now if you change that
to six-eight, it becomes light." D'Amboise skips past
the pokeweed, skimming the ground as he whistles the
jig from the Trail Dance. It's as if the tune carries
"You see?" he says. "It
has a lilt to it."