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Upper West Side: A Dayenu for “Dancing in Jaffa”

Susan Reimer-Torn
April 25, 2014

Pierre Dulaine and the Children of the World

by Susan Reimer-Torn dancing-in-jaffa-10There are many things I have long known and admired about Pierre Dulaine, and even without knowing his full story, I could have proclaimed a seasonal “dayenu”: to me these things would suffice. Pierre is a man of great inner conviction who triumphs over the odds. Twenty years ago, as a five-times crowned world ballroom champion, he was not satisfied teaching his art to New York’s social elite. Instead he wanted to bring the decorous protocols of ballroom dance to inner-city classrooms. As illustrated in the hit film, Take the Lead (in which Antonio Banderas played him), Dulaine was certain that through ballroom dance, much that seemed irreparable could be overcome. Kids who were considered incapable of taking a single direction, kids whose worlds were chaotic, kids whom teachers dismissed as “animals,” would learn to stand tall, to relate respectfully to others, and comport themselves with studied courtesy. They would align their bodies and minds in order to remember precise steps and execute correct partnering and directional changes. I’ve long known that Pierre is a man who makes mad dreams come true. Beginning with fifty kids, his Dancing Classrooms programs now reaches out to over 400,000 in countries everywhere. Eleven-year-old street-culture boys request the honor of a dance with a gentlemanly gesture, and confidently guide a trusting young woman around the floor; young women blossom into self-respecting allure. Together, boys and girls discover the joys of mutual trust and acquired discipline; within ten weeks of rigorous practice they are rewarded by the pleasure of movement and musicality made their own. Dayenu — all this I have known. But with last week’s New York City premiere of the documentary, Dancing in Jaffa, I learned a lot more. Dulaine was born in 1944 in Jaffa, then a predominantly Arab seaside city just south of Tel Aviv, to an Irish father enlisted in the British army and a Palestinian mother. With the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948, his family of five fled Jaffa, leaving behind a row of houses his father had built and a lifestyle they would never reclaim. The film reveals that underneath his flurry of sophistication and hard-won success is a steadfast desire to offer this dance to the residual Palestinian kids with whom Dulaine has never ceased to identify. Dancing in Jaffa documents the ten weeks Dulaine spent teaching Jewish and Arab Israeli kids not only to dance together but to overcome reciprocal mistrust, in the ancient port city of his birth. Like-what-youre-readingAt the screening I attended, the ever-dapper Dulaine arrived at the film’s end for a Q and A, and most of the audience welcomed him as a hero. One discomfited viewer, however, posed the ubiquitous question: Why did the filmmaker not take time out to give a more favorable picture of Jewish Israel? I found myself wishing that B’nai Jeshurun’s Rabbi Roly Matalon was there to reply. On the eve of Passover, Roly pointed out to my congregation that there are many different versions of the Exodus story. Some Talmudic rabbis say that only one out of fifty Hebrew slaves had the courage to leave Egypt; another says one out of 500. But Rabbi Roly — whose advocacy of a two-state solution and an end to the Occupation have sparked vitriolic controversy — did not limit himself to speaking of the differing midrashic narratives of the Exodus. He also reminded us that there are already many different versions of the contemporary history of Israel. He urged us to listen to them all, to do our best to interweave and balance the varying voices. So what did we actually see in Dancing in Jaffa that seemed unfair to this disgruntled viewer? The film shows 70-year-old Dulaine looking longingly at his family’s former house and being told, politely but firmly, to clear out fast when he asks to visit the inside. We see a busload of slogan-shouting, menacing rightists in fringed prayer shawls steamrolling into Jaffa to remind its Arab residents that the city belongs to Jews. We witness a Palestinian teacher telling her kids that while the Israelis will be celebrating their Independence Day, their community will be marking the Naqba — a day of national calamity. We hear Dulaine explaining his quixotic mission to a disbelieving Israeli cab driver: “We Palestinians were here first and now we know the Israelis are not going to leave. I hope through ballroom dance we will learn to trust one another a little bit more.” And in one candid scene Dulaine expresses his personal desire to improve the lot of Palestinian kids. The film's producer, Diane Nabatoff, had a clear response for the questioner. This film does not have a political agenda, he said; it is not taking sides, but is telling one person’s story, exposing his life’s mission and showing us what it takes to fulfill it. Teaching in Jaffe was the toughest thing Dulaine ever attempted, and for that reason, the most rewarding. How could we not applaud his story without attempting to eclipse it with our own? If Pierre Dulaine had only established his program in hundreds of inner-city schools here in New York and not around the world: Dayenu. If he had succeeded in bringing his program to only five schools in Jaffa and not disseminated it all over Israel: Dayenu. If he had allowed the possible to triumph over prejudice even if every single viewer does not get up and dance: Dayenu. All of this really does suffice. But I will only truly be satisfied when it is understood, that regardless of which narrative is your chosen truth, others should be applauded for courteously and graciously presenting their own. Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the memoir, Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return, about to be published by the Blue Thread imprint of Jewish Currents and available now at a pre-publication discount.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.