Jacques d’Amboise, born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in 1934, began his dance training at the age of seven with Madame Seda in Washington Heights. Within a year, he was hopping on the subway to the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the fledging company started by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. By the age of fifteen, he had joined the New York City Ballet, and by seventeen, he had dropped out of high school and become a soloist. For the next three decades, d’Amboise partnered with some of the most exquisite ballerinas of the day, and as Balanchine’s protégé, he had numerous ballets made specifically for him. Critics hailed him as “the definitive Apollo,” a role that he claims changed his life. He was also known for his wildly exuberant screen presence, most notably as Ephraim in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the Starlight Carnival barker in Carousel.
As his dancing career was winding down, d’Amboise embarked on a spectacular second act: founding the National Dance Institute in 1976, a program that brings ballet into public schools around the country through classes, residencies, and performances—all for free. His memoir, I Was a Dancer, published this month, recalls his seven decades of dance. Although d’Amboise says he is slowing down, the evidence suggests otherwise: as we sat over cups of café au lait in SoHo, he felt compelled to rise from the table to demonstrate a particular sequence of ballet steps. The other patrons were as surprised—and delighted—as I was.
Where did your mother get the idea that you should study dance?
She never finished elementary school, but at home, everybody read books. Especially French books: Victor Hugo, Maupassant, Dumas. She always dreamed that she would be an actress, in drama, and that educated her: she’d dance, recite poetry, use beautiful words, speak French, and act and sing. And her dream was that all her children would be brought up that way.
And it came true!
It did—for three of us. In the early days of New York City Ballet Society, we were all in. My sister stopped because she married the company doctor and she was quarter ballet girl. She had a minor solo once in a while but nothing really. I think I did my solo before I was seventeen and I was doing principal roles while I was still quarter ballet. And Freddie Ashton came to the U.S. and did a ballet for me, and then I did my first movie. I turned eighteen on the set. I just did what I wanted and had everything given to me. And in a way that was why I started National Dance Institute: I never had to audition for anything; I never had to pay for a dance class.