Small steps, one-two, to peace
Every week, on couches across the nation, Americans argue the finer points of a silky-smooth waltz, the sharp hooks of an Argentine tango, the flicks of the jive. Ballroom dance is enjoying a popularity unseen for decades, thanks to TV's Dancing With the Stars.
But pair an elementary-school-age boy and girl, and ickiness and peer pressure intervene.
Pierre Dulaine knows that. The four-time ballroom-dancing world champion (with Yvonne Marceau) began teaching social dance to schoolchildren in 1994 through his Dancing Classrooms program. (A Dancing Classrooms Philly opened in 2007.)
His work was heralded in the delightful 2005 movie Mad Hot Ballroom, which showed children in poor and privileged New York neighborhoods go from reluctance to competition in 10 weeks. (His story was also fictionalized in 2006's Take the Lead, starring Antonio Banderas.)
But Dulaine didn't know from reluctance until he went to Israel to fulfill a lifelong dream: to get Jewish and Muslim children to dance together. That journey is documented - in English, Arabic, and Hebrew - in Dancing in Jaffa.
Born in Jaffa to a Palestinian mother and an Irish father, Dulaine left when he was 4 and had not been back. He wants to visit his childhood home, but its owner is so wary as to be threatening.
Dance, Dulaine thinks, is the way to learn to trust in Israel.
In the film, he tells a group of Jewish parents and teachers, "You're not going to go away. The Palestinian people are not going to go away. So this is how we make it better."
The first step is to get children to dance with their classmates, and that's hard enough.
"In Islam," a Palestinian mother says, "a boy and girl shouldn't touch."
Indeed, when classes begin at a Palestinian school, many girls show up, and one boy. Even when the principal insists the boys must dance, they refuse.
Eventually, in Muslim and Jewish schools - and one rare mixed school - Dulaine makes progress. He shows a video of his younger self dancing with Yvonne Marceau. The children are charmed, even more so when Marceau shows up to dance with Dulaine.
"You don't have to marry everyone you dance with," Dulaine tells the children, who marvel that the two danced together for 35 years, but did not wed.
Just when he has begun to win them over, he breaks it to the children: Next, they will be dancing with the enemy.
"Merengue!" Dulaine bellows, and Jewish and Muslim children move together stiffly, barely looking at their partners.
By the time a competition comes around, though, most are eager to be chosen to participate.
The film focuses on three children: Noor, a girl whose mother was born Jewish but converted to Islam; Lois, a Jewish girl who freely tells friends she is the product of her mother and a sperm bank; and Alaa, an impish Muslim boy with large eyes who lives in a shack.
But Dancing in Jaffa is so wrapped up in political and logistical red tape it loses the charm and drama of Mad Hot Ballroom. We barely get to know the children or see much of their dancing. By the time the winner of the competition is announced, it is not much of a surprise, and there is little emotional payout.
Dancing in Jaffa **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Hilla Medalia. With Pierre Dulaine, Yvonne Marceau. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
Parent's guide: Not rated.
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.