Working together, trusting one another, touching strangers and looking into their eyes — these are not phrases that come to mind when you think about the lives of Palestinians and Jews living together, yet apart, in Israel. But champion ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine means to change that. “Dancing in Jaffe” follows Dulaine as he returns to Jaffa, Israel, the town where he was born in 1944, and which he left with his Palestinian mother and Irish father in 1948, as begins a 10-week course in Latin dance.
“I am going to ask them to dance with the enemy.”
The students are ten-year olds at elementary schools in Jaffe. Some of the kids are Palestinian Israelis and some are Jewish Israelis. Except in one mixed school, the kids in this movie do not know any boys or girls from the other tradition. As a brief look at Israeli Independence Day, as observed by the students in the movie, shows the depth of the division: Israelis celebrate their independence while Palestinians mourn its loss. As Dulaine says, “I am going to ask them to dance with the enemy.”
Dulaine believes that “dancing with the enemy” turns the hated other into a trusted partner. It must, he argues, because ballroom dance is built on civility, and civility breeds respect.
Director Hilla Medalia follows Dulaine (“Mr. Pierre,” as he is known to his students) watching him struggle with boys and girls who don’t want to touch each other because they are an awkward ten-years old, Palestinians and Jews who don’t want to touch each other because they fear one another, and Muslim children who believe it is wrong to touch a partner of the opposite sex.
Dulaine is by turns playful and demanding. He will not allow boys to dance with boys or girls to dance with girls because ballroom dancing “is for ladies and gentlemen to dance together.” When he grows frustrated with the children, he calls in his long-time partner, Miss Yvonne, who arrives from New York and helps him demonstrate the graceful techniques he means to teach.
The film spotlights three children: Noor Gabai, a shy Muslim girl whose father has died and whose mother has lost her job; Alaa Bubali, a sunny Palestinian boy from a poor fishing family and Lois Dana, a cheerful Jewish girl who, as the child of a single mother and her unknown donor father, seems able to adapt to the most unexpected situations. The scene where Alaa invites middle-class Lois to his home and proudly shows her “my tree,” a tiny shoot struggling in the shade of a table or the neighborhood soccer field, a street and a brick wall on which a net has been drawn in black marker, is moving in part because Lois doesn’t treat him like a victim or a project. She treats him like a new friend, just as Alaa treats her. When he shows her his father’s (tiny) fishing boat and takes her out into the ocean, and when we see his large, affectionate family, we understand that Alaa, as poor as he is, has gifts to share and that Lois is able to receive them.
These scenes help us understand just how unlikely it is that a Palestinian boy and a Jewish girl might be seen practicing the merengue or the tango, learning to look one another in the eyes and cooperate to bring about the intricate steps and the infectious rhythm of the dance. Of course, the movie ends in a dance competition and it is charming to watch. But the competition is not at the heart of the movie; it’s the cooperation that will make you smile and marvel and be grateful for the Pierres and the Noors and the Alaas and the Loises of the world. Go see “Dancing in Jaffa” and enjoy.
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