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Dancing in Jaffa Documentary Promotes Peace One Step at a Time

by Bonnie Rosenstock
April 10, 2014
Pierre Dulaine had a lifelong dream. The four-time champion ballroom dancer and founder of Dancing Classrooms envisioned that one day he would return to Jaffa, the city of his birth, to teach the Palestinian/Israeli and Jewish/Israeli children to dance together, no easy feat in a city polarized by fear, suspicion and enmity. Dancing in Jaffa, directed and co-written by Hilla Medalia, is the compelling documentary of this journey highlighting Pierre and the fifth-graders who participated in it's risky experiment of learning to trust and respect each other—and ultimately forge unexpected friendships, with wider implications.

Dulaine, a Christian Arab (mother Palestinian, father Irish), left Jaffa when he was four years old, after the creation of Israel in 1948, and hadn't been back since. Approximately 70,000 Arabs left at this time, while only a few thousand chose to remain and become Israeli citizens. They comprise about one-third of the population of 46,000; a smaller minority is Christian Arab.

According to the film's opening statement, "Prior to the early 19th century, there were no Jews living in Jaffa," an ancient port city, now a suburb of Tel Aviv. (For more comprehensive information on the complexity of invasions, occupations and expulsions in Jaffa, from its earliest biblical history to the present follow these links: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/585777/Tel-Aviv-Yafo/274766/History and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaffa#Ottoman_pe)

"Whether you like it or not, we lost our home during the creation of Israel," said Dulaine in the film. "But how do we make it better? This is the reason for me, starting with the children. In ballroom dancing there has to be a lot of trust. When you start with a child of nine or ten, somehow they learn how to respect themselves first and then other people as they are growing up. This is my hope."

It took six years for the project to get approval, which finally came in 2011, said Medalia. (I interviewed Dulaine, Medalia, producers Diane Nabatoff and Neta Zwebner-Zaibert, the three kids the film focuses on, Alaa Bubali, Noor Gabai and Lois Dana, plus Lois's twin brother David, on April 10 in the IFC office in New York's midtown.) With holidays, breaks and background shots, they filmed from February to June 2011. The film opened at last year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Unsurprisingly, Dulaine initially ran into a great deal of resistance to the idea of having Jews and Arabs dance together. Even though the two communities live side by side, there is very little meaningful interaction, and many of the kids had never even met their religious counterparts. "What I am asking them to do is dance with the enemy," acknowledged Dulaine. But he was determined. "This has more meaning to me personally than anything else I have done in my life. I have been teaching children in America for over 30 years, and I have never done anything for my own community."

Dulaine held meetings with the parents, teachers and principals at the five chosen schools—two Arab, two Jewish and one mixed population at the Weitzmann School. Dulaine proposed having 15 couples of three teams, a total of 150 fifth graders. Each couple would consist of a Jew and an Arab (there were also a few Christians) from the paired schools, plus one team from Weitzmann. At the end of the ten weeks, he would choose 84 youngsters from the three teams for a competition. Typically, the Dancing Classrooms program runs twice a week for ten weeks, but Dulaine added a third weekly session.

The Jewish school kids have religious backgrounds, but they are not Orthodox. A Muslim woman in a headscarf expressed the views of her co-religionists about touching. "Even though they are kids, I feel it's a little difficult," she said.

"Palestinian/Israeli kids never see men and women dancing together, not even at weddings," said Nabatoff. "For them it was overcoming not only shyness, but also something cultural and wrong for religious reasons." Added Medalia, "Everyone told us that the Arab schools wouldn't open their doors. But I truly believed in Pierre."

He explained that their children would be learning life skills: confidence, self-esteem, discipline, etiquette, self-respect and respect for their partner. "When you touch someone with respect, he's not black, Chinese, English, Jewish, Arab. He's a human. There's a person in front of you."

Nabatoff first met Dulaine in 2000 when she optioned the rights to his life, which became the musical drama Take the Lead (2006), directed by Liz Friedlander and starring Antonio Banderas. It depicted Dulaine's struggle to bring ballroom dancing to New York City's public schools. Dulaine was also the subject of the acclaimed documentary Mad Hot Ballroom (2005), directed by Marilyn Agrelo, about his Dancing Classrooms for fifth graders in the city's public schools.

Another hurdle was the kids themselves, who wouldn't look at each other and pulled their sleeves over their hands to avoid touching. Of course, it should be noted that kids that age are shy and never want to touch the opposite sex, no matter what their nationality, background or who their partner is. Both Alaa and David admitted they didn't want to dance at first. "I felt very shy at the beginning, but I got used to it," Alaa said.

He showed the kids films of him dancing with his ballroom partner of 35 years, Yvonne Marceau, and sent for her to demonstrate how graceful and elegant ballroom dancing could be—and that you didn't need to be married to the person to touch. "I thought I was hot stuff, but I was meeting so much resistance," he told her.

Dulaine taught the kids the rigorous dance steps, poise and carriage at their own schools to get them used to dancing as one. The next phase was bringing the two religions together. On the bus, a Jewish girl from Hashmonaim said, "My father would kill me if he saw me dancing with an Arab." When they arrived at the Arab-Jewish Community Center to meet the students from Al-Okhuwa, many Arab kids walked out as the two groups insulted and spit at each other. "That first time, that was when I was tearing my hair out," admitted Dulaine.

The other two schools that were paired together were Open Democratic School, housed in a windowless bomb shelter, and Ajyal School.

The filmmakers also highlighted Ms. Rachel, a teacher at the multicultural Weitzmann School, the only one in Jaffa and one of a handful in Israel. The school teaches in Arabic and Hebrew and is always being threatened with closure. "Ms. Rachel is religious and our biggest supporter. She got it from the beginning," said Medalia.

Even though Ms. Rachel lost part of her family in the many conflicts, she was a constant inspiration to her students. She wants her kids to win the competition and encourages them to work hard. "It's not enough that you know how to dance," she told her charges. "You have to prove you are a good person."

We first meet Noor as an angry, sullen child, who is ostracized and friendless because of her behavior. Her father died when she was six years old, and she is still grieving. Her mother was born Jewish but converted to Islam and was recently fired from her job as a cleaning lady in a doctor's office. She and Lois go to Hashmonaim, which some Arab and Christian kids attend, "They won't be able to read or write Arabic," said Medalia, "but parents think their kids will get a better education to compete in Jewish society."

Dulaine said he felt a connection to Alaa because he lives 50 meters from where Dulaine was born. He was shocked at the family's living conditions, in a shack in the Ajami neighborhood, now undergoing gentrification. Alaa combs the beach, looking for scrap metal to help support the family. His father is a subsistence fisherman with a small boat, and they are struggling to make ends meet. He encourages his son to learn Hebrew so he will have a better future.

Lois and David are being raised by their single mother, who conceived them via a sperm bank. Lois is engaging and very open from the beginning and makes a great effort to connect with the other kids. One of her and her brother's best friends is Palestinian/Israeli, noted Medalia. Lois is paired with Alaa. In the course of the film, she and Alaa visit each other's homes and practice dancing after school. Lois also visits Noor, which was very emotional—it was the first time a girl from her class came over.

I would have liked to see more kids featured. We saw multiple shots of them rehearsing and dancing but didn't know their names or anything about them, not even about the winning team members. Spoiler: Weitzmann took the gold. "Those kids learned and moved much faster than the other kids because they were already over the hump of touching someone from another side," said Nabatoff.

"It was the hardest thing to choose who to focus on," admitted Medalia. "We had 400, 500 hours of film, and some kids never made the cut. I wanted to follow Lois because she was really making an effort to become the dancer. We followed Noor from the beginning because Pierre's program is known for helping kids who need the most help, who have low self-esteem. You can see during the film how the program affected her."

Noor, who has a big personality, told me the only reason she started going back to school was because of Dulaine. "To be honest, I fell in love with Pierre," she said, to the warm laughter of the assembled group. Dulaine responded, "I knew this afterward. I was only concerned with my classes and didn't know what was going on. When she gave me the heart [during the dance competition], I realized I was a father figure."

What is the "Dulaine Method"? I asked. Dulaine explained, "It's a system that has been codified on how to work with children to get them to do what you want them to do. A child that age doesn't want to dance, so there are six segments: respect; compassion; for a teacher to be present; to give the kids a safe space to feel comfortable; for a teacher to have command and control of the whole class; and to have a body language and a verbal language. And, of course, mix it all up with some sugar, humor and joy. When a teacher can put all of these things together, you stand more of a chance."

He continued, "Although the film is about Jaffa, we have such situations all over the world, where people can live on the same street and not get on with each other. It's to get them to feel better about themselves first, so they can feel better about the people across the street."

At the competition, 500 parents showed up to cheer on their well-groomed and beautifully attired children dance merengue, swing, tango and rumba. (I couldn't catch if there were other dances involved.) Veiled Muslim women were sitting next to Jewish women, engaging in conversation and exchanging phone numbers, which would have been unheard of a few months before.

As the final credits roll, we read that the Dancing Classrooms program continues in Jaffa. In two years more than 1,000 children have learned to dance together. Nabatoff added that it is now in 13 schools in other cities in Israel. "The people we brought together and the lessons they learned all continue. The issues the families talk about are also relevant to any neighborhood in America or anywhere and relevant to mixed communities. There's a place for the program everywhere."

Dancing in Jaffa (2013), directed by Hilla Medalia, written by Hilla Medalia and Philip Shane.
(Exploredance.com was a supporter of the film's Kickstarter campaign.)

Check your local movie theaters for showtimes. Now available on VOD. For more information, go to www.dancinginjaffa.com.


Dancing Classrooms, founded in 1994 by Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau as a project of their American Ballroom Theater Company, is a 10-week, 20-session program that began with 30 children in the New York City public schools. Dancing Classrooms now operates in 200 schools in the city. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Dancing Classrooms currently serves more than 42,000 students each year in over 30 cities or regions and three international sites. To learn more about the program, visit www.dancingclassrooms.org.
A scene from 'Dancing in Jaffa'. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

A scene from "Dancing in Jaffa". Photo courtesy of IFC Films.


A scene from 'Dancing in Jaffa'. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

A scene from "Dancing in Jaffa". Photo courtesy of IFC Films.


A scene from 'Dancing in Jaffa'. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

A scene from "Dancing in Jaffa". Photo courtesy of IFC Films.


A scene from 'Dancing in Jaffa'. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

A scene from "Dancing in Jaffa". Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

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