Facing the music... and each other

Overcoming the challenges of teaching Arab, Jewish Israeli kids to dance together is the subject of the film ‘Dancing in Jaffa’.

Dancing kids 370 (photo credit: Adam Cohen)
Dancing kids 370
(photo credit: Adam Cohen)
Ballroom dancing, with its emphasis on formality and decorum, might seem to be a supremely un-Israeli art form. But Pierre Dulaine, an acclaimed ballroom dancer and teacher based in the US, who was born in Jaffa, managed to teach a group of Israeli children to dance beautifully together. And, perhaps even more surprising, these children were both Arab and Jewish Israelis.
The lovely dance contest the children took part in, and the process that led up to it, is chronicled in Hilla Medalia’s documentary Dancing in Jaffa, which will be shown on May 2 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as the opening film of DocAviv, the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival. The DocAviv festival, which features dozens of documentaries from Israel and abroad, runs until May 11.
The film was produced by Keshet, and will open at cinematheques around the country in May. It will also be shown on television, but the date has not yet been announced.
Medalia, a seasoned documentary director who made the film To Die in Jerusalem, about a teen suicide bomber and her teen victim, initially wasn’t sure that Pierre Dulaine’s dream to get Jewish and Arab kids dancing together would come to anything.
Dulaine, whose Dancing Classrooms program in US inner-city schools was already the subject of a fictionalized feature film, Take the Lead, starring Antonio Banderas, had long dreamed of returning to his home (he left Jaffa in 1948 at the age of four with his family) and promote tolerance through dance.
Medalia heard Dulaine was bringing his program to Israel, and says, “I must say that in the beginning in the current political climate, I wasn’t sure if this was the right time. But when I met Pierre, I knew that if anyone could make it work, he could. He’s from here, he speaks Arabic, he knew how to make the parents feel comfortable with the idea, even with the Muslim community in Jaffa.”
Still, it was an uphill battle, since, as Medalia notes, “[In the Muslim community] men and women don’t even dance together at weddings. It was a challenge to get the schools on board.”
She also points out that Jaffa “is a place many think of as a very integrated community, but it’s actually self-segregated,” with very few schools that have both Jewish and Arab students. In the end, Dulaine’s grace, charm and iron will won over parents at a number of schools, both Jewish, Arab and mixed.
“It was a long process. He went to people’s houses, he just didn’t give up,” she says. “Some of the families were very religious, very conservative [Muslims].
Remember, there is a veiled woman at the final performance, but like any other parents, they want what’s best for their kids, and he convinced them that this would help the children.”
Dulaine’s program, “gives them tools that are way beyond dance, all kinds of life skills about respect and discipline. Ballroom dancers have to work together as a team, to trust each other. The dancers must have both self confidence and mutual respect.”
It’s quite moving to watch how several children with difficult home lives blossom as they learn to dance, and how Jewish and Arab kids who were at first uncomfortable being in the same room together end up as graceful dance partners.
Perhaps equally surprising is that many of the children who met through the program are still in touch.
“There absolutely are continuing contacts... everyone is on Facebook, posting pictures together.”
Dulaine believes, says Medalia, “When you actually bring those kids together at a young enough age, it can stick. I’m not so naïve that I think you can come together for four months and change the whole situation.”
But anyone watching the film will understand that after the program, those children’s outlooks did undergo a metamorphosis. And the program itself is not over.
“There are more than a thousand kids in involved, and there are teachers working here that Pierre trained. They’re working in a number of places around the country.”
Dulaine will be at the DocAviv screenings (on the opening night and on Friday), as well as at a special screening for the children and their families in Jaffa.
“It’s very important for me that he will be there,” says Medalia.
The film had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April, and some of the children from the Bronx who had been in Dulaine’s Dancing Classrooms program saw it. “They really loved it. They laughed,” she says.
Medalia, who is Israeli, divides her time between Israel and abroad, directing and producing movies on various subjects, including drug trafficking and Internet addiction in Asia.
“I live in Israel now. I kind of go back and forth,” says Medalia, who attended college in the US on a track and field scholarship.
“I’m a filmmaker, I’m a storyteller. The films that I’m doing deal with issues that are socially important. When I find a story I want to tell, I go for it.”For information on DocAviv, go to the website at www.docaviv.co.il