September 20, 2019

Ballroom peace

The long history of Jewish-Arab animosity is a hard thing to change, but that didn’t stop ballroom dance champion and choreographer Pierre Dulaine from trying, literally, one step at a time.  

Having taught 350,000 New York City fifth-graders to dance via the Dancing Classrooms program that he founded in 1994, the man famously portrayed by Antonio Banderas in the 2006 feature film “Take the Lead” returned to his native Jaffa to bring young Jewish and Palestinian Israelis together on the dance floor. The result is “Dancing in Jaffa,” a documentary that chronicles his challenging journey and ultimate triumph. 

Dulaine was born in 1944 to a French-Palestinian mother and an Irish father, but he hadn’t been back to the city since his family fled to Amman, Jordan, when he was 4 years old, later settling in Birmingham, England. Dancing professionally by the time he was 18 and competing all over the world, Dulaine, born Peter Heney, never forgot where he came from and vowed to return one day. 

I wanted to give a gift to the children of Jaffa, give them the confidence that comes from dancing that I had lacked as a teenager,” Dulaine said. His plan was set in motion when Israeli educator Miri Shahaf-Levi contacted him in the summer of 2005 after seeing the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about his Dancing Classrooms, which uses ballroom dancing to teach life skills to fifth- and eighth-grade students in communities throughout the United States. Shahaf-Levi suggested bringing the same program to Israel. “I said yes, but I would only do it with Palestinians and Jews. She found the schools for me — two Arab schools, two Jewish schools, and one mixed.”

Some parents declined to have their children participate, but ultimately Dulaine ended up with 125 fifth-graders meeting at the Arab-Jewish community center in Jaffa. It did not go well at first. 

Faced with skeptical adults and uncooperative children, “I was tearing my hair out,” Dulaine admitted. But once he brought in his longtime dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, to help demonstrate the dances, the children began to respond.  Eighty-four children made it to the final competition, a showcase in which the  students performed with their Palestinian and Jewish parents watching side by side. 

“It’s the hardest thing I have ever attempted and done, and the most satisfying,” Dulaine said, confiding that he’s seen the documentary more than 30 times now and still cries at the screenings. 

During the filming of “Take the Lead” in 2005, Dulaine had told producer Diane Nabatoff about his dream to bring Jewish and Palestinian children together on the dance floor, and she asked him to call her when he was ready to proceed. “He called in December 2010 to say he was going to go in February, and, with the holidays, the timing couldn’t have been worse. But I put together my team, and we raised money as we were shooting,” Nabatoff said. 

She hired Hilla Medalia, a Jewish-Israeli writer-director, as well as a mixed Jewish and Arab crew, and tapped ballroom expert Nigel Lythgoe (“So You Think You Can Dance”), along with entertainer and children’s advocate La Toya Jackson and noted documentarian Morgan Spurlock as executive producers — “high-profile people who could really get the word out.” 

Nabatoff knew she’d single out some children to spotlight, and several emerged as the most compelling, including an open-minded Jewish girl named Lois and a Palestinian student named Noor, a girl whose transformation into a confident, happier pre-teen is one of the film’s highlights. 

“Dancing gives you all these skills — self-respect, respect for others, self-discipline, self-esteem and improved academics,” Nabatoff noted, praising Dulaine “for achieving in 10 weeks what people haven’t been able to achieve in hundreds of years. If you change the children, you change the future because you engage the parents. You can’t be angry or hostile when you’re dancing. It’s like taking a happy pill.”

Nabatoff, who grew up in New York in a Reform Jewish family, is a married stepmother of four grown children, ages 21 to 34. She recalled “Dancing in Jaffa’s” Israeli premiere last May, which took place outdoors on a rainy evening at the port of Tel Aviv on the opening night of the DocAviv Film Festival. “Everyone was glued to the screen. People really responded to it. It made them laugh, cry, and touched their hearts.”

While she concedes that a film and a dance program can’t resolve the problems in the Middle East on their own, she believes that “if you put this program in every school, in every city, in every country, you would start to change the children — and the children will do the rest.”  

Along the same lines, Dulaine took the program to Belfast last year, bringing Protestant and Catholic students together, and he may do so as well in Berlin. In France, a study guide will be issued to every school with the “Dancing in Jaffa” DVD. Shahaf-Levi, now director of Dancing Classrooms Israel, has expanded the program, teaching nearly 3,000 children to date. 

“I planted the seeds, and she’s growing it,” Dulaine said. “I’d like to take this film to schools everywhere to teach tolerance and show people that it is possible to exist side by side if you have compassion and respect for your fellow human being.”

Nabatoff, who is now developing a documentary about alternative cancer treatments with actor Stanley Tucci, said she hopes parents will request Dancing Classrooms at their kids’ schools, and encourages conversation and video-sharing at and on the film’s Facebook page. “We want to engage people in the discussion,” she said. ”It’s not just a movie. It’s a movement.”

“Dancing in Jaffa” opens at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on April 18.