Last night I saw a documentary as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival about Pierre Dulaine, whose family was forced to leave Jaffa when he was a child. A champion ballroom dancer, he returns there 60 years later to teach ballroom dancing to children, but not just any children—he teaches Palestinian and Jewish kids from five different schools and then brings them together.
We get to see Dulaine arrive in Israel eager to show his students that they can trust each other through the medium of dance. He brings his dancing partner of thirty-five years, Miss Yvonne, out from New York to help him show the kids what real ballroom dancing looks like. When he tries to show her his childhood home, they have to leave in a hurry because the current occupants have guns and threaten to use them.
But the real stars of the film are the kids. At first there are some who are unwilling to dance with the opposite sex let alone people they view as the enemy. You see several of them pull their sleeves down to cover their hands so that they don’t have to touch. Some refuse to dance with kids they don’t know. One Jewish girl who does dance with an Arab boy makes the comment that her dad would kill her if he saw them dancing together.
But Mr. Pierre sticks with it and insists that the boys ask their partners politely to dance and the girls must respond, “With pleasure.” Gradually they learn the steps, get over their initial shyness, and compete for the golden cup. Mostly we see budding adolescents that could be from anywhere on earth, asking Mr. Pierre if he and Miss Yvonne are married and giggling with each other outside class when discussing who fancies whom on the dance floor.
We meet Noor, a girl who recently lost her father and has a lot of anger. At the beginning of the film, she’s gotten in trouble for hitting a classmate, and we see her cry openly and kiss her father’s gravestone. By the end of the film she is dancing, smiling, and making friends. Her teacher describes her as “a flower that’s opened up.”
Alaa is beyond adorable and brightens any room with his smile. Poorer than some of the other children, he lives in a tiny but happy home. His dance partner, Lois, is a mature girl who positively glows with self-confidence. Her mother worries that Alaa will bring down their performance and is rather consumed with the idea of her daughter winning, to which Lois responds, “It’s not all about winning, Mom.” I have great faith in Lois even if her mom is not the ideal role model.
I have to say I shed more than a few tears watching this amazing documentary. But during the first third of the film, it was because it seemed so hopeless. By the end of the film, they were tears of hope.