In Israel a few new grooves on a Jaffa dance floor are cranking up hopes of peace for the Mideast and catching the attention of Hollywood’s producers.

Arab and Jewish children there are behaving impossibly, doing something many of their parents considered unthinkable – they dance together. Really together, as in old school, ballroom dancing, requiring skin contact and long periods of practice. Actually. Touching. Each other.

Dancing was not the ultimate goal of the improbable extra-curricular activities of the Jaffa kids, but a side effect of one man’s dream. Pierre Dulaine, highly lauded dancer and instructor wanted to bring his program Dancing Classrooms back to the city of his birth. He found it a formidable but not quite impossible task, which has now been made into a full-length feature film “Dancing in Jaffa.”

A trailer for the film can be seen below:

Believing that ballroom dance works not only as an art or sport, Dulaine created Dancing Classrooms as a social development program which he hopes will “change the lives of children and their families.” It’s already been implemented across New York and other American cities with rave reviews and even has its own research papers showing the positive impact of ballroom dance on kids, staff, academics and schools.

Just an aside: Didn’t we know this before?

Once upon a time, in a land before equal access toilets, many public schools taught ballroom dance to help civilize the little savages. It also gave us a break from Kennedy-era fitness bootcamp and dodge ball. Mr. Dulaine would like to see dance return, but has a much grander vision.

Antonio Banderas and Pierre Dulaine, photo: Seth Wenig/ Reuters

This isn’t the dance master’s first brush with fame. You may recognize his name from two earlier feature films. “Mad Hot Ballroom” (2005) follows students from Dulaine’s “Dancing Classroom” sessions in New York City. “Take the Lead” starring Antonio Banderas (2006) is a somewhat fictionalized story of Dulaine’s life and work. Hollywood writers continue to find Dulaine’s artistic adventures an endless fount of inspiration.

In New York, Florida or elsewhere, Dulaine emphasizes good manners with his pivots and consideration while finessing a box step. His aims are to teach respect for self and others along with social skills for successfully working out tasks and life together.

“You can move with each other as one, there’s leading and following, but no one is the boss,” he explains. “The most important thing is learning how to treat the people around you in a respectful way.”

Battling racial and political tensions in Jaffa made teaching there the “hardest thing I ever did in my life,” Dulaine claims, but also as rewarding. It was a tough crowd. Kids initially spit and kicked each other, while parents objected to dancing with the opposite sex on religious grounds and general distrust.

Dulaine won over most diehard parents with charm and determination (knowledge of Arabic greatly helped) and taught 10 weeks dance to Jaffa’s children. “Dancing in Jaffa” zooms in on four particular children following their families’ reactions and how they learn to trust and work out religious and cultural differences with one another.

Ballroom dancing is considered a functioning, operative art form, but serious dancers train like any athlete. Unknown to many, ballroom is a designated international sport since 1990 with constant petitions to the Olympic Committee for inclusion. So issues of race, national identity and religion are either worked out or set aside while young couples master exacting tasks that require 360 degrees of attention.

As diplomacy requires at least a modicum of trust, it’s also almost impossible to dance without some confidence and faith in your partner. “Catastrophes” such as a fall or broken strap launch a dance couple into collective action, so mutual cooperation and good will is required. It’s difficult to hate someone on their knees looking for your glasses anyway.

Dulaine hopes that lessons kids take home won’t be quickly forgotten. In the world according to Pierre Dulaine even the most serious and entrenched divisions in Jaffa may be softened by life lessons from ballroom dance.

Strikingly non-political, Dulaine is optimistic about the future. Specifically, he mentions bridging racial prejudice and hatred, learning respect, tolerance, manners, pride, elegance and working toward shared goals. Beautiful bullets from an ugly war.

But Israel isn’t the only place on earth where ballroom dance functions as a social force as well as pleasure, exercise and art. South Africa embraced the elegant moves as far back the as the 1920s and hasn’t let go yet:

Penwell Nhlapo and Yulia Kharlova, South African national ballroom champions

Reflective of everything else there in South Africa, dancing was highly segregated by race and class until quite recently (1994 to be exact). Now black and white couples openly compete, as evidenced by National Champions Penwell Nhlapo and Yulia Kharlova. But in spite of European background and music, ballroom dance is equally if not more popular with native South Africans who continue to excel and compete.

Black youth are encouraged to foxtrot and waltz by parents, especially in poorer black townships where there may be little else for them to safely do. In 1993 ballroom dancing was by far the most popular activity in South African townships for youth, and by the late 1990s Newsweek claimed it was the third most popular leisure activity for all South Africans after soccer and boxing.

Priscilla Myburgh is on a mission. She’s dedicated 20 years of her life to teaching ballroom dance to South Africa’s children absolutely free.

Myburgh speaks passionately about its benefits for kids: “It keeps them off the streets and from smoking and fighting. They do better at school and come home safely because they must practice many hours.”

South Africa and Israel have raging social and political problems with no magic bullet yet found. But Pierre Dulaine and Priscilla Myburgh believe that the larger life lessons imparted by ballroom dance culture are powerful enough to make a sizable difference.

Dumisani Barayi of Tsakane township was 10 years old in 1993 when explained why he preferered dance to soccer and virtually everything else: “We don’t play roughly, we don’t hit each other. We just dance. It’s fun.”

Twenty years have passed since Dulaine introduced his Dancing Classrooms, with more than 300,000 children participating, and it’s still going in Jaffa. Dumisani is now 30 years old, and his life will be a testament to whether something as simple as dance is transformative or just a healthy diversion. We can always hope Dulaine is right.

Thanks: Los Angeles Times, ABC Australia and Journeyman Pictures.

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