Back before that velvet-lined, aristocratic name, Jacques d’Amboise—born Joseph Jacques Ahearn—was a rough-and-tumble Irish-American kid growing up in Washington Heights. But his mother, a pint-sized French-Canadian force of nature, had loftier visions. She changed the family name to d’Amboise—her maiden name—and bartered her chestnut-stuffed chicken in exchange for her children’s music lessons. Ballet classes were part of her plan, and she brought 7-year-old Jacques to a local ballet mistress. He showed aptitude, and within a year he was hopping on the subway to take his place at the barre of the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the fledgling New York City Ballet.
D’Amboise was a quick study. At 9, he caught Balanchine’s eye and was given the part of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; his mother made his costume. He was a company member by 15, and by 17, he had dropped out of high school to become a principal.
For the next 30 years, he held audiences in thrall with his explosive, athletic style. Yet d’Amboise was a gentleman, possessing a courtly, even reverent attitude toward his partners; he gave a little piece of his heart to each of them.
My first exposure to d’Amboise came in the 1970s. I was part of the army of ballet girls, all bony shoulders, tight buns and heavy bags, who paraded along Broadway, Seventh and Eighth Avenues, where so many of the city’s studios were located. My studio was on West 56th Street, and after class, my friends and I would head to City Center or Lincoln Center, where cheap student-rush tickets were available.
A veritable cornucopia of balletic genius spilled out before us. Although I usually reserved my worship for the female dancers, something about d’Amboise stirred me. I found him scintillating in Jewels and buoyant in Stars and Stripes. When I learned he had made movies in the 1950s, I hunted for showings at revival houses and watched him ignite the screen as Ephraim in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and as the Starlight Carnival Barker in Carousel.
But it wasn’t until decades later that I actually met d’Amboise. Although retired from professional dancing, he was in the midst of a spectacular second act, as founder and chief ambassador for the National Dance Institute.
I was nervous about meeting my girlhood idol. But as soon as I walked through the door of his townhouse on 71st Street in Manhattan, I was instantly at ease. Jacques—as he insisted I call him—was all smiles, urging me to sit down, offering to take my coat, fetch me water, wine or a steaming bowl of his homemade soup. I was there to interview him for a magazine, and I discovered that the fire he exuded onstage and on-screen was every bit as bright in person. He introduced me to two of his four children—Charlotte and Christopher, both dancers themselves—and to his wife, Carolyn George. They had been partners on Balanchine’s stage, fallen in love and married. But when the children came—four in all—she retired and became a photographer; it was Carolyn who took the photos to accompany the piece I wrote.
Fast forward to 2010, when I was assigned to interview him on the occasion of the publication of his memoir, I Was a Dancer. To my amazement, he remembered our earlier meeting, and we easily fell to talking if not like old friends, then certainly like very friendly acquaintances. He shared not only details from the book, but also things he had left out, like his wife’s death two years earlier. He spoke movingly about his years with Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein and Jerome Robbins; he waxed poetic, literally; he recited lines of Persian poetry—when discussing his wife, or the ballerinas with whom he had danced.
As the conversation wound down, d’Amboise began telling me about a snippet of ballet history that linked ballet movements to those drawn from fencing, and he grew animated as he described their connection. And then, compelled by his excitement, this 76-year-old man rose from the table, where his café au lait sat cooling, and began to demonstrate—that is, to dance. Although dressed unassumingly in a zip-front sweater, slacks and sneakers, everything about him was elegant, confident and poised.
It struck me then that the title I Was a Dancer was not accurate. What that moment revealed to me, and to the other astonished, delighted witnesses to his impromptu performance, was that this man is a dancer—and as long as he draws breath, he will remain one.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of three novels, including The Four Temperaments.
Photo by Martha Swope, ©New York Public Library for the Performing Arts