In 1976, one of the most influential dancers of his generation, Jacques d’Amboise, founded an organization that would change the face of dance. Jacques, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet at the time, had a mission to create a program that helped students in the New York City School system develop an understanding and a love for the arts; thus, the National Dance Institute was born. As a pioneer of inclusive, school-based arts education, it was Jacques’ energy, charisma, and ability to communicate with kids that would turn a program with just 30 children at one school, into a nexus that now reaches more than 6,500 students in over 41 schools each week— and more than 35,000 students per year!
At the time, Jacques’ program was simple: introduce kids to dance and make it fun. Regardless of economic or social class, race, gender—or, really anything for that matter— the charge was to let kids find the joy of movement, collaboration, and the payoff of hard work.
For a man whose work had inspired so many already, and whose talents had brought him to a level of success many only dream of, (along with his work with NYCB, Jacques had danced in films like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Carousel), to dedicate so much of his life to thousands and thousands of students was monumentally incredible. The ramifications of the seeds he planted in the mid-1970’s are seen today, only on a far larger scale, and seem to know no bounds. The National Dance Institute’s work has not only expanded to at least twelve associate programs around the United States, but to programs in India, China, Russia, parts of the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Jacques d’Amboise and Allegra Kent performing Balanchine's “Sylvia Pas de Deux” in 1965.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/New York Times
In 1983, a documentary about Jacques and the NDI was produced titled He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ and, in the piece, one can see why Jacques had the enormous success he did with the students. A father of four himself— two of his children are now very influential dancers in their own right, Charlotte d’Amboise and Christopher d’Amboise— he intrinsically knew how to get the best out of the kids.
Jacques said in the film, “I used to teach every class myself, but you can’t do that if you want a program to grow. I started five years ago with 30 children and we did a program at the end of the year, a little show, now we’re a 1000 children dancing, and the show is a major production, and each school has its own dance with its own music, and that happens because we have extraordinary teachers and choreographers and musicians working together.”
Jacques d’Amboise, in the 1983 film, ‘He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’’. Photo Credit: PBS
He was right— about it all— but, especially about working with extraordinary teachers and choreographers.
These days, from its Harlem based home, the NDI continues boldly forward on the path of arts education through one of its best known programs: The D.R.E.A.M Project. The D.R.E.A.M. Project, short for ‘Dancers Realize Excellence through Arts and Movement’, is a cost-free program that extends the inclusivity Jacques trail-blazed by providing students with physical and cognitive disabilities a place to discover the power of dance.
Last week, I had the pleasure to meet up on a conference-call with two of the creators of The D.R.E.A.M. Project, Master Teacher Kay Gayner, and board certified pediatric physical therapist Agnes McConlogue Ferro. Together— along with a team of extremely passionate teachers, dancers, and physical therapists— these two prodigious women have nurtured and grown one of the most deeply touching, incredibly important, unabashedly necessary, and extraordinary arts education programs in history.
Kay Gayner (with microphone) holding the hand of Agnes McConlouge Ferro at the 2016 The
D.R.E.A.M. Project Performance
MICHAEL: I want to thank you both for taking the time to speak with me today. If you would, could you explain exactly what The D.R.E.A.M. Project is, and, whose idea it was, who inspired it, and how it came to be?
KAY: I’ll start! So, Jacques d’Amboise founded NDI 41 years ago with the belief that ‘everyone could dance’ and that full participation in the arts is essential to the growth and education of every child. Jacques really believed that if you surround children with excellence, they will rise to the occasion, achieve excellence, and be inspired to imagine bigger and better lives for themselves. That philosophy is the foundation for all of NDI, and D.R.E.A.M. is an extension of exactly that belief. The idea that ‘everyone can dance’ is only limited by our imagination. Limited by what the perception of ‘dance’ is, what ‘ability’ is, what bodies can do… and, of course, limited only by how big we can dream.
D.R.E.A.M. is based in that core belief, but, more specifically, centered on bringing together children with and without disabilities. The choreography is focused on partnerships, and the possibility of making new and inventive choreography for these specific bodies and abilities that the world has never seen before.
—And, I’ll just add: the vision that ‘everyone can dance’, is everyone, all over the world; everyone of every kind of race, ability, gender, type and ideology.
AGNES: Like Kay said, this all really starts with Jacques and what he began. He was close with a school called P.S. 199, which is on the west side of Manhattan, and it was the first barrier-free school in all of the five boroughs. It was built with an elevator so that children who might use a walker or a wheelchair would be able to access any of the classrooms the other children were accessing—and that happened to be the school I was assigned to. So, when NDI came [to the school] in 1998, I was there from the first day, working as a physical therapist.
I really felt that the children who were chosen, [for the first in-school program] were “my kids”— I knew what these kids could do and what their potential was, and as someone with a dance background, I knew there was something I could offer to the dance teacher who came— Ellen Weinstein.
So, this all really started back in 1998, and D.R.E.A.M really stemmed out of P.S. 199, and what we had there.
MICHAEL: ’Dancers Realize Excellence through Arts and Movement’ is, itself, an incredibly inspiring title, but what do you think it is about the arts and dance that helps these kids “realize excellence”?
AGNES: (Laughing) To be honest, I came up with that name in the parking lot of a grocery store. I was just sitting there thinking about the children; and, I have to say, it always comes back to the children. I was sitting there thinking about the children [in the P.S. 199 Program] and what I had seen them do.
I mean, here I am, a physical therapist, trained, certified, registered in New York, practicing a long time, and [back at the school] I was watching another physical therapist work with a girl who had been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. This girl, who had incredible weakness on her left side, had been struggling to get her left arm up over her head. I took this girl upstairs to where we had the program going on, and a little while later, I look over, and there she is, reaching her hand over her head, and you know why? Because that’s what the other kids were doing, and that’s what the dance teacher had asked her to do. She was completely transformed and motivated by that dance class. That was a game changer for me.
It really is ‘realizing excellence’. For the kids, it’s realizing what ‘you’re’ capable of, and sometimes, I don’t even think the kids know what they’re capable of.
What it comes down to for us, is that there is an expectation. Not “expecting” that this child has had limitations lifting her arm, but expecting she’s going to try to lift it as high as she can— or if he or she is unable to turn their head, but they can use their eyes, it’s expecting they’re going to look to the right if everyone else is turning their heads to the right. It’s the absolute belief in expectation, and then, watching the child excel.
KAY: And if I might add, just to sort of circle back to the history of D.R.E.A.M., one of the things that happened when I started working with Agnes at P.S. 199 in 2002, was the development of this model of focusing the choreography on the partnerships; giving the children the tools to really co-create and participate in the creation of really inventive choreography. Choreography that is, hopefully, truly and genuinely interesting to an audience, and is of high artistic quality. But, it’s that participation, on the part of the children, that is a big piece of the ‘Excellence’. ‘Excellence’ is really what the art is giving to the children; the dance, the live music— really participating in the art, participating in the act of creating something that has meaning, beauty and value. That’s the power of the art.
—One other thing regarding the history of D.R.E.A.M., and Agnes touched on this earlier: When the political atmosphere changed and schools became mainstreamed, it was mandated that children with disabilities not be sent to one school. As more schools became barrier-free, (and, about which there are many great things), the downside was that there was no longer one place where lots of children with different abilities were all together. So, five years ago, when NDI got our center up in Harlem, Agnes and I — along with Aileen Barry— said, “ding ding ding!!”, now, we could create an after-school program or a summer camp where WE could bring people together because we had a home! Now, we could recreate that same magical formula that we had at P.S. 199. So, when we got the center and began the program there, that is when it formally became D.R.E.A.M.
MICHAEL: Wow! That’s incredible! It seems, it really comes back to inclusivity and collaboration?
KAY: D.R.E.A.M. is drawn on inclusivity. It’s drawn on the 20 year formula [of working with all children] that NDI has used. At NDI, we’ve had programs for children with visual impairment, programs at schools for the deaf, and the ongoing program at P.S. 199.
Agnes, and Aileen, and I strive to focus the heart of our collaboration between the Master Teaching Artist/Choreographer and the Physical Therapist. We work together to imagine and expand what’s possible for the children in the room, and then, develop the choreography out of that. I believe so strongly, that art is transformative for anyone involved. If ‘you’ really believe in the idea that ‘anybody can dance’, and that all movement is beautiful, then you can create art that celebrates that! Art that looks at what the children can do, and then, amplifies and expands it— rather than treating [their disabilities] as a diagnosis that needs to be “fixed” or an impairment that is inhibiting— is a spring board for something more beautiful. Something that we all achieve, together.
AGNES: And for the profession of physical therapy, that idea was a game changer. We’re trained to look at somebody who has limitations and say ‘they need more strength here’ or ‘they need more range of motion here’, but the holy grail of what we’re trying to do, is to get that child to participate and function to the best of their ability. For me, it’s for those kids to do that with their peers— and that concept is a part of the essential foundation of NDI.
The incredible thing that is so specific to D.R.E.A.M., is that it’s all about the partnerships. We’ll take a child who has a developmental diagnosis, and they’ll get paired with an age-matched peer from NDI’s scholarship program; and the reason for that is, motivation. With the layer upon layer of motivation that these partnerships bring, coupled with the week long immersion of the program, it allows us to ‘go deep’.
You know, you’ll hear of programs just for children with Cerebral Palsy or children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, but here, we run the gamut of diagnoses and we welcome everybody. And, in the end, it’s not about the diagnosis, it’s about the child and their potential. We are looking at what a particular child can do and what a partnership could add to that.
…and that’s where Kay really goes to the races as choreographer. It’s like watching the grand finale on the Fourth of July.
MICHAEL: Well that leads me to my next question: Kay, you’ve said in the past that “limitations are the source and foundation of creativity”, so, tell us a little more about how you find the inspiration for the movement and choreography?
KAY: Jacques, who was my first mentor and creative hero, always used to say that when he was working with [George] Balanchine, the way they would approach creating choreography would be by first creating a ‘limit’. Jacques also used to say that if you left ALL the possibilities wide open, you’d fall into the same old repertoire and do the same old things over again. So now, when we’re creating, I’m working within these new structures and rules— or “limits”, if you want to call them that—, and we’ll make something new. Something that stretches boundaries. The “limit” helps me invent movement that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
So, I’ll sort of look at the room and say, for instance, okay, Alexa has a power wheelchair that she's amazing at driving… she can spin around in four counts or drive with forty people attached to the back of it. Or, Veronica, who has Cerebral Palsy, can move her legs like crazy in the gate trainer… so, what if we have something where Alexa drives her wheelchair with everyone attached to the back like a flock of birds, then suddenly, everyone drops to the floor and kicks their legs in the air, while Veronica kicks her legs in the gate trainer acting as a soloist for the moment.
I look at it from a straight-ahead choreographic point of view, and see what movements we can create that, not only, highlight abilities, but also, build and strengthen the skills of everybody in the room. The idea is that we look at what they can do, what the possibilities are, and then, we dream; we dream up what crazy, amazing, wild things we can create.
MICHAEL: What do you hope the kids involved in D.R.E.A.M. will take away after their experience? And, what do you hope dancers and artists who view it from an outside perspective take away after learning about D.R.E.A.M.?
KAY: I think it’s easy to fall into talking about how the children with disabilities are transformed by the program— and they are!— but [their age-matched peers], the children who are participating who are ‘quote-unquote’ “without” disabilities, are equally transformed by the process. Something that is so beautiful in children is that they just want to make a connection.
Now, it’s easy [for the children without disabilities] to look at another child who has a lot of ‘equipment’ and ‘apparatus’ and see that equipment as a barrier; they may not know how to break through that barrier and connect. So, one of the things we really work on, especially with the partnering, is bringing out the personalities of the children. In the process of teaching good partnering, they begin to learn about the equipment and apparatus of their counterparts, and that naturally breaks down the ‘barrier'. They begin to co-create their own translations and versions of the choreography, and through these partnerships, I've seen the children without disabilities utterly transformed by the process. They will never walk down the street and see a person in wheelchair and avert their eyes or walk away, because they understand how to approach, they understand ‘that is a person’. At the end of the day, they learn to see everybody as “just people”, and they have tools to connect and bridge the ‘imagined’ barrier. They develop an expanded ability to see somebody who is different from them, and know how to take the step to create a connection. I think that’s a big part of what they take away.
AGNES: For me, when we first started, the hope was that there would be this ability to grow and excel for all the participating children; and that’s happened, bigger and beyond anything that I could have ever imagined.
This program creates [success] itself. I mean, kids are kids are kids! For instance, in the last D.R.E.A.M., we had a child with Cerebral Palsy who couldn’t get lip closure, and, because she was working so hard, was drooling. I saw that child’s partner reach up, wipe her mouth, and continue watching Kay as if it was the most natural thing… and, it was just THAT natural, it was THAT easy! There’s this great level of acceptance there, and unfortunately, a lot of us outgrow that.
One of the things we do at the beginning and end of each program is a survey with some of the students. One of the things we ask in the beginning survey is, ‘what are you feeling or expecting as you go into this program?’. Something like 70% of them say that they’re nervous, or worried about being partnered with a child who has a disability.
At the end of the last program, the question was, ‘what are you going to miss the most about D.R.E.A.M.’, and every single kid— 100% of the kids— said they were going to miss the partnerships. They are hitting it out of the park! And, it’s not something we’re doing, it’s the kids, it’s amongst them! It’s the ability for them to realize that “yes my partner can, and yes my partner will’. It’s way beyond just dance.
And, you asked about the impact on people outside of the program; well, I had NO idea that this would be so impactful for the audience. For the people who come into the room, even the other staff members, they're always completely blown away by what’s happening.
KAY: I would also say, regarding the audience— when we are creating a performance that is specifically highlighting everybody’s ability, it says to the audience ‘don’t avert your eyes’, ‘please look at us’ ‘watch what we can do and celebrate that with us’. Every performance we’ve done really has felt like a celebration. The audience gets curious, they get really interested to learn about the different abilities, and different types of disabilities and idiosyncrasies— and it’s in a setting where everything is beautiful: gorgeous lighting, all the children are just spectacularly beautiful human beings, and the whole thing is just beautiful to look at….with permission for the audience. It says to the audience ‘no, it’s okay, look at us— because if you look, you will see that we are beautiful’…. that is how the audience is transformed by this program.
MICHAEL: What are your goals for the future of D.R.E.A.M.?
AGNES: I think, because of the uniqueness of the program, and the success and impact it’s had, it NEEDS to be shared. NDI was fortunate enough to have recently received a generous grant from the Kenan Trust, so this year D.R.E.A.M. will be offered twice; it was offered once this past February and will be offered again later this year in August. Also, I’d love to see the opportunity to really expand, and provide training for more dance instructors and physical therapists— because that collaboration is such a key to the success.
KAY: Hopefully we’ll continue to have two workshops per year, but like Agnes said, the ability to continue teacher training for both teaching artists and physical therapists is huge for us.
The ultimate goal is to get ‘everybody in the world dancing’, and the way you do that is scale. It’s achieved by training teachers to teach the way we’re teaching, and then, for them to reach out to kids all over this country— all over the world—and bring together children with and without disabilities, and give them the opportunity to dance.
It’s also my hope, that through this program we can reach more and more children and people [with disabilities], and give them an alternative opportunity, outside of the medical setting, that’s joyful.
MICHAEL: Finally, you both have such strong educational backgrounds, both with the NDI and outside educational systems; from two deeply entrenched artists and teachers, why do you think arts education is so important in our schools?
AGNES: I’m becoming OBSESSED— and you can write that in big bold letters when you write this up— OBSESSED, semi-crazed, with the perceived “sameness” of education and the way education is delivered ‘unilaterally’— it does not celebrate the individual learner! Now, from what I’ve seen first-hand through NDI at PS 199 and here at D.R.E.A.M., is that art and dance give these students opportunity. What arts education does is really highlight the individual. It lets each child realize what they didn't even know they were able to do, and that to me, makes it the unsung hero. It says to them, ‘here’s your chance’. I can’t think of anything more important right now—and not just in this political climate, but this educational climate, as well.
KAY: Boy do we need the arts in the world today. They are the only place where we get to celebrate individuality, differences in cultures, and differences among people, and, at the same time, use those differences to connect to our fellow humanity. In these divisive times, where everyone is pointing fingers, I think we need the arts, and we need our artists—whether they are
children or adults— to remind us that a togetherness, where we celebrate our connections AND our differences, is a worthy dream.
One of the things these two incredible women talk a lot about is the power of inclusion. How, by simply including everyone, regardless of their individual differences, it sets the foundation to create their art. With inclusion in mind, I wanted to wrap up by including a short piece of writing that speaks, on so many levels, to the power of inclusion—and, to the power of dance. It’s a piece composed by a man by the name of Jerron Herman. Jerron is a professional dancer and an NDI Teaching Artist who has participated in the last two incarnations of D.R.E.A.M. He also happens to have Cerebral Palsy. Kay, who read it aloud to me in our interview, said her dream for D.R.E.A.M., and its impact on the children, is to do exactly what Jerron says:
DREAM offers the reality of dance for young people who are in a context where dance is not very real or important to their "growth"; it's seen as merely decorative.
I love being a part of a program that promotes learning new skills and modes of empathy for children without disabilities; and I love being in a program that reimagines dance for children with disabilities. It's almost like I'm able to redo my childhood experience in the room as an adult with a disability who dances!
The idea that arts education, the power of dance, inclusivity and acceptance are all ‘alive and well’ at the National Dance Institute’s D.R.E.A.M. Project is merely an understatement. These things— these ideals— grow in a fertile soil there, and flow in a deep river of passion from that room. They MUST exist there because there’s simply no other choice. The ardor of Kay, Agnes, Aileen, Jacques, Jerron, and every- single - other - person involved in the history and the current happenings of this program burst with both tenderness and strength, they produce and demand hard work and vigor, and they bleed love and art with all their beings. And yet, they seem to do it with an air of elegance, eloquence, and a calm but powerful sophistication. It’s definitely an art.
I want to thank Kay Gayner and Agnes McConlogue Ferro for their time, their passion, and their patience. Also, a special thanks to Aileen Barry at NDI, and to the man who began it all, Jacques d’Amboise.
You can learn more about this upcoming summer’s D.R.E.A.M Project and much more by visiting the National Dance Institute’s website at: nationaldance.org or by following them on Instagram or Twitter by clicking the links.
EXTRA: Click here to see the viral docu-short produced by NOWTHIS on The D.R.E.A.M. Project.
Michael Mahany is a host and the New York Correspondent for DanceNetwork.tv. He is also a professional actor. You can find out more at his website: www.michaelmahany.com or follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @michaelmahany. Also, be sure to follow Dance Network at
@watchdancetv for the latest in all things dance.
**All photos, unless otherwise noted, provided by The National Dance Institute and Sunshine Sachs.