Entertainment :: Movies

Dancing in Jaffa

by Kevin Langson
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Friday Apr 11, 2014
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A scene from ’Dancing in Jaffa’
A scene from ’Dancing in Jaffa’  

Pierre Dulaine is a renowned dancer who has been teaching dance in the US for thirty years. "Dancing in Jaffa" is about his singular homecoming. We’re not told why now, but he has decided to return to Jaffa, the embattled city outside Tel Aviv where he was born but hasn’t returned to since his departure at age 4. He is bringing with him Dancing Classrooms, a program designed to improve young lives through ballroom dancing. His subjects: A trepidatious, yet curious, group of fifth graders who come from Palestinian-Israeli, Jewish-Israeli, and mixed schools.

Without a doubt, he has a daunting challenge ahead of him when he lands in his motherland. He even sounds a bit naïve when he articulates, to a skeptical taxi driver, his dream to bring Palestinian and Israeli youngsters together through dance. However, it helps that he is a tough teacher. He is amply loving and even magnanimous in his vision, but he takes no bullshit in the classroom, handily using his tie to whip recalcitrant children and raising his voice in English and Arabic (he relies on an interpreter for Hebrew) when the classroom bends towards anarchy.

First of all, he has to cut through the typical pre-teen qualms about touching or engaging with the opposite sex, bolstered by Islamic strictures. It’s a big deal just to bring boys and girls together for an activity inherently suggestive of romantic intimacy, let alone to overcome the entrenched ethnic-religious stigma (which, though weaker in children, is still there thanks to inculcation by their parents). He spends some time in Weizmann, a rare mixed school in which Palestinian-Israelis are not a tiny minority, where religious tolerance is apparently taught.

Closer to wispy than hard-hitting, the film is a perfect entry point or reprieve from despairing material.

We get a glimpse of how the school operates, and we see how Pierre is received at the various schools where he works to get his program up and running. In general, children take to his ebullient blend of jocularity and discipline. However, there is resistance and frustration along the way, prompting Pierre at one point to declare that he doesn’t want to force participation. He is adamant that pupils should be eager and committed.

When Pierre invites his longtime dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, to Jaffa to demonstrate the dances to the kids, their faces light up with excitement, even if some are initially aghast that he touches and dances with a woman to whom he is not married. Pierre does an excellent job of countering the religious or cultural notions about appropriate conduct between men and women that are antithetical to the dance he teaches. With adults it would be more difficult -- and at the beginning an older teenager unyieldingly states her Islam-based objection -- but with children he can playfully laugh at these crippling notions and move on, bringing most of them along with him.

Likewise, the film does an excellent job of capturing these challenges while keeping the story light and hopeful, as is apropos to Pierre’s character. In fact, despite touching on such heavy material as one young student’s mourning of her father and dealing with estrangement from her classmates, as well as the ethnic animosity encapsulated by the fact that an Israeli holiday is concurrently celebrated as "independence day" at the Jewish school and the "huge catastrophe" at the Palestinian school, the film is closer to wispy than hard-hitting. For those wary or weary of the perennial conflict that plagues this part of the world, this film is a perfect entry point or reprieve from more despairing material. Pierre’s program succeeds at capturing the devotion of students (including an inspiring turnaround for the aforementioned troubled young girl) and at demonstrating that dance represents a way for people to transcend the revulsion that threatens to reproduce itself through infinity without clever humanists such as Pierre.

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