The weekend after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia—and the upheaval that followed—I found myself looking for artistic consolation. The 2013 documentary Dancing in Jaffa, which had been sitting in my Netflix queue, turned out to be a timely choice.
The film follows former championship ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine (whose Dancing Classrooms program in New York City schools inspired the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom) as he brings the program to his hometown of Jaffa, Israel. In addition to the usual challenges of teaching 11-year-olds—wandering attention, physical and social awkwardness—Dulaine has come specifically to pair up Israeli and Palestinian boys and girls from local schools. “What I’m asking them to do is dance with the enemy,” he explains.
Give the man points for technical difficulty: over 10 weeks, he must win over both kids and parents, some of whom already oppose boys and girls dancing together for religious reasons. Resistance comes from all sides—even the cab driver ferrying him around tells Dulaine of losing friends to the fighting in Gaza, and calls his mission impossible.
But Dulaine is undeterred: he enlists the support of the schools’ teachers and recruits his former dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, to help run classes. (When the kids ask if they’re married, Dulaine pounces on a teaching moment: “You don’t have to marry everyone you dance with,” he points out.)
Outside the classroom, Palestinians and Israelis clash in the streets, but inside, Dulaine works to persuade the next generation to try a more civil approach. “If you start with the child first, and they learn to respect themselves, then they can respect other people as they are growing up,” he says. “This is my hope.” By the end of the program, unlikely friendships have formed, ideas have shifted, and the kids’ newfound sense of rhythm is matched by a greater sense of empathy.
It’s enough to make you believe that change can happen, even in the most polarized environments, one small step at a time. —Heather Wisner