You know how difficult it can be to get girls and boys of a certain age (10-11) to appreciate one another, let alone touch each other (except, maybe, for hitting). The girls are taller than the boys and already looking beyond them toward adolescent males. There’s a considerable “yuk” factor to overcome and concern about transference of cooties. This seems to be true even in the Middle East. Now imagine you want to get these magnetically oppositely charged individuals to engage in something as uncool as, say, ballroom dancing: tango, meringue, rhumba, etc. To make things harder you select them from differing social classes and religions. Now add the ultimate challenge: the potential partners must be mortal enemies, indoctrinated from birth to hate their enemy.
All but the last of these challenges have been met before by the central character of this documentary, world renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine, whose Dancing Classrooms non-profit organization’s work with New York City students was chronicled in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. But this time he has decided to return to the place he was born, to an Irish father and Palestinian mother, the Israeli city of Jaffa. The family left in 1948, the year the State of Israel was proclaimed.
In Hilla Medalia’s documentary film Dancing in Jaffa Dulaine revisits the house of his birth in what is still a poor port city south of Tel Aviv, a city divided and largely segregated into two opposing communities. His mere appearance and desire to see inside produce the possibility of violence (perhaps fear that he is there to reclaim the family’s property) and he must move on. But Dulaine’s goal is not to resurrect the past but to focus on a possible future of respect and trust, instigated through dance. He intends to work with students from five local schools, all but one entirely segregated, to teach them, over just ten weeks Latin dances, culminating in a competition. Muslim and Jew must partner in his plan, Arab and Israeli moving together in harmony. He’s a dreamer, but a determined dreamer.
He seems to have forgotten that Arab men believe they are not permitted to touch a woman (never mind a Jew). When he first tries to get the children to assume a dancing position, many keep their hands a safe distance apart, or, when forced by Dulaine to connect, extend their sleeves so the material prevent them actually touching. For some it is just too much, an impossibility, and they quit. Dulaine is firm, insisting they do what is required, but at one of the Arab schools it is too much even for him, and he abandons that school to continue with just four. It seems a mission impossible, until he shows video of himself and his former partner dancing, and the children begin to apprehend the movement with the music, and giggle to see it’s him, a much younger man. This comprehension is reinforced by the arrival of said partner, Yvonne Marceau, who goes with Dulaine from school to school and performs for the students. You can see the girls particularly, watching the movements and beginning to mimic them.
But more than a film about Dulaine, this is a film about the children. A few have been selected for us to begin to know, and it is they who touch us and ultimately give us hope. Like Noor, the chubby, sullen and angry Palestinian girl, continually grieving over the death and absence of her father and fighting with her classmates. When partners are selected, she is left partnerless. This is her turning point, as Marceau steps up to become her partner. She learns quickly with Marceau; and when she has to return to France, Noor has sufficient momentum and newly acquired self-assurance to continue to progress. She begins to make friends, her grades improve, her parents see a young woman in bloom transformed from what her teacher calls “a tightly closed flower” to a blossom (she even appears to get slimmer).
Then there’s Alaa, a shortish, shy and impoverished but good-natured Palestinian boy who is paired with Lois, a bouyant, blond middle-class Jewish girl, considerably taller then he, and, as the New York Times review says. “brimming with good faith”. She accept him immediately and soon is visiting his home, holding hands, riding with him in his father’s tiny fishing boat. He shows her his personal “tree”, a shrub barely a foot tall, growing out of a crack between the wall of his house and the street, and his soccer pitch – goal posts crudely drawn on a wall. With only traces of hesitation, Lois accepts it all and accepts him.
The possibility of children being transformed also proposes parents being more open and accepting, an extremely difficult proposition, exacerbated by Israeli Independence Day happening during the ten-week period of the film (a day the students at the Palestinian schools are taught as the day of Catastrophe for them), with right wing activists marching through the streets of Jaffa shouting anti-Arab threats then counter protests which the Arab children and their parents attend, as Israeli police roughly push them away. When the final dancing competition arrives, it seems, as the Times review says, almost too pat but “irresistible to behold”.
Medalia wrote the film with Philip Shane and, with Dancing Classrooms, wants it to be more than an interesting documentary; they want it to be a catalyst for change, making it available to communities, parents, teachers and their students to share. Dulaine would like to see his Dancing Classrooms model replicated worldwide, “to demonstrate the powerful role… dance can play in enabling children to overcome prejudice and build strong personal ties with one another. Hate starts at a young age; if we can wipe it out early on by teaching mutual respect and understanding, we can encourage children to find their own ways to bridge chasms through the arts and community service.” You can contribute, host a screening, help bring Dancing Classrooms to a local school, watch Pierre Dulaine’s TED talk “May I Have this Dance, Please?” or just tweet with the hashtag #DanceNotWar. Stepping out by stepping up.