Dancing in Jaffa unites Israeli and Palestinian children on the dance floor

Dancing in Jaffa is a 2013 documentary film directed by Israeli filmmaker Hilla Medalia, and starring Pierre Dulaine, a celebrity dance instructor and ballroom dancer. Dulaine, who was born in Jaffa and now resides in New York City, is the founder of Dancing Classrooms, a social and emotional development program for 5th grade children that uses ballroom dancing as a vehicle to change the lives of those children and their families. And in 2011 he took the program to Jaffa, where he was born, to teach Israeli and Palestinian children to dance together.

Dancing in Jaffa chronicles this experience, and exemplifies exactly what we are doing with A Wing and a Prayer. At the beginning of the movie, these Jewish and Arab children and their families do not know each other, and know little about each other. The live in the same city, but they are totally separate. Getting them to dance together is not easy. First, the filmmakers and program directors had to get the approval from their parents. And then, imagine trying to get fifth grade boys to dance with girls in the first place. Anyone with kids knows this is already difficult – “Ew! Girls” “Ew! Boys!” — Now imagine some of those girls are veiled and come from conservative Muslim families, and that they live in a geographic area where their two peoples have been in conflict for as long as their families can remember. Good luck, right?

Well, they got those children to dance, and to talk, and to see each other as people, which is amazing – and inspiring.

I an interview with Time magazine Dulaine said, ““When you touch someone, something happens. And when you touch someone with respect and compassion, you get that respect and compassion back. The dancing frame is known as the embrace hold. If I’m dancing with you, I am in an embrace hold with you — how can I be angry with you?”

I spoke to the film’s director Hilla Medalia on the phone from Park City Utah —  where she was at Sundance promoting The Oslo Diaries, which she produced – and asked her what she took away from the experience of working on Dancing in Jaffa, from which we might also learn. By “we” I mean “we” at A Wing and a Prayer, as we venture out to create the type of experience chronicled in the film, but also “we” meaning everyone who believes that peace is possible, even in the most acrimonious circumstances.

Here’s what she told me:

“The amazing thing I learned. is how deep and wide the gap is between the two communities. There is no interaction —  no meaningful interaction at least – between them.

In the beginning there was a lot of tension. Some kids didn’t want to dance with or touch the other kids; they were literally spitting at each other.

But it was incredible to see how, as the weeks went by, they really formed relationships and became friends. And those relationships are still there today. They’re still in touch, and they keep the relationship going today.

I believe that the opportunity to build these relationships has an impact. I think they learn about the other, and they learn to respect the other. They also learn to trust themselves, and to work as part of a team. There are so many elements to this experience. The relationship with the person from the other community was very special and not something that they have in any other context.”

If anything demonstrates exactly what we are trying to prove through action here, it’s this.

Check out the documentary Dancing in Jaffa by Medalia Productions.