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Dancing with the enemy

Posted on February 16, 2015

Zoë Anderson watched Pierre Dulaine work his magic in new documentary Dancing in Jaffa

dancing-in-jaffa-image-2“What I’m asking them to do is difficult,” says former ballroom champion Pierre Dulaine in the fascinating new documentary Dancing in Jaffa. “It’s dancing with the enemy. That word isn’t ever said aloud, but I’m sure that, in their minds, that’s how they think of it.”

Since retiring from competition, Pierre has founded Dancing Classrooms, a programme working with schoolchildren, often in socially divided areas, to promote social awareness, confidence and self-esteem through dancing. Directed by Hilla Medalia, Dancing in Jaffa follows Pierre as he returns to Jaffa, the Israeli town where he was born. This time, he aims to teach ballroom dancing across the religious divide, to both Jewish and Arab-Israeli children.

Pierre’s own family fled Israel in 1948, when he was four. He’s filmed returning to his childhood home, but it doesn’t go well. “I think we should leave now,” says one of the production crew, as the atmosphere grows ever tenser.

During a taxi ride, Pierre explains that this isn’t a political project, just an attempt to bring people together. His driver replies that, when he was in the army, four of his best friends died in Gaza: he could never trust a Palestinian. “You have to trust your partner when you dance with them,” offers Pierre. The driver listens politely, radiating disbelief and anger.

From the start, the project seems fragile. Some of the Arab-Israelis are against male-female touching. Pierre wins parents over when he tells them what dancing can do for their children: how it teaches grace, improves posture, creates new poise and confidence. He has most success at an integrated school, which already teaches children from both sides of the divide: what will happen when he brings pupils from separate Arab and Jewish schools together?

Before he gets that far, he has to cross the divide between 11-year-old boys and girls. Asked to take hands, they recoil, pulling their sleeves down to cover their hands. Pierre is a born teacher, with elegant ballroom carriage, magnetic persona and unbending discipline, but even he struggles with this crowd. To win them over, he brings in his dancing partner, Yvonne Marceau, with whom he won the British Exhibition Championship four times. First, he shows the children a video of them dancing. “It’s Mr Pierre!” one child exclaims, recognising the younger version on film. Then, of Yvonne, “She’s, like, insanely beautiful.”

The film focuses on particular children. Noor, a Palestinian-Israeli girl, is prickly and difficult, with reason. Her mother was born Jewish but converted when she married a Palestinian man, who died not long before the Dancing Classrooms programme started. Noor cries in gulping, painful sobs at a visit to her father’s grave. At school, she’s aggressive: girls in her class say they’re scared of her, “as if you’re going to devour us, like a sandwich.”

Yet when Pierre encourages her, teaching her the steps of a merengue, she’s good: still self-conscious, but responding to the rhythm. Learning to dance, she starts to make friends with other girls, practising steps together. It’s the first time anyone has come to play at her house. At the final dance competition, she’s laughing and talking with her schoolmates, dancing with projection and confidence.

Alaa, another Palestinian-Israeli, has a radiant smile and lives in poverty, sharing a tiny shack with his family. When he’s partnered with Lois, a Jewish girl who is a fine dancer, her mother worries that he won’t keep up. “What if she dances beautifully but loses because of him?” “Winning isn’t everything, mom,” her daughter points out. “Lois, sometimes it is,” her mother replies.

Medalia’s film weaves together footage from the classroom, from the children’s homes and from the streets of Jaffa, where tensions simmer throughout the filming period. It creates a portrait of a community, while movingly showing how dance can change the children’s lives: Lois and Alaa becoming friends, Noor coming out of her defensive, unhappy shell.

By the time Pierre organises a final competition – run on strict traditional lines, with rigorous judges – everyone is hooked on dancing. Arab and Jewish parents sit side by side, discussing their children and swapping phone numbers. “It’s everything I dreamed of,” says Pierre. “If I wasn’t MC, I’d be crying.” You might cry, too.

Dancing in Jaffa is in cinemas now. 

Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Now acting editor of Discover Britain magazine, she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success.

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