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.

French photographer JR places Israelis and Palestinians Face 2 Face

Most people would probably agree that art can change the world in ways big and small. Art has the power to spark life-changing realizations that embolden people to act — inspire revolutions, and to quell them. You can’t argue with that, I wouldn’t think.

And since our mandate is to prove this by putting it into action, let’s look at some of the greatest past examples.

One of the ways in which art has impact, is in holding a mirror up to the world and saying, “Look at this, this is you. This is you in all your tragedy, all your horror, all your evil, and all your beauty.”

A compelling example of this is the French artist and photographer JR, who operates in the streets of the world posting portraits and images in a bid to create space for discussion about the state of it.

“JR creates ‘Pervasive Art’ that spreads uninvited on the buildings of the slums around Paris, on the walls in the Middle-East, on the broken bridges in Africa or the favelas in Brazil. People who often live with the bare minimum discover something absolutely unnecessary. And they don’t just see it, they make it. Some elderly women become models for a day; some kids turn artists for a week. In that Art scene, there is no stage to separate the actors from the spectators.” http://www.jr-art.net/jr

In 2007, JR and someone named “Marco” (I cant’t find anything more on him than that) created Face 2 Face, the largest illegal art exhibition ever, in which they posted massive portraits of Israelis and Palestinians side by side in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, on buildings and other surfaces, including the separation wall between Israel and Palestine.

In a 2011 TED talk, JR said:

“We decided to go there and see who are the real Palestinians and who are the real Israelis. Are they so different? […]  We decided to take portraits of Palestinians and Israelis doing the same jobs — taxi-driver, lawyer, cooks […] They all accepted to be pasted next to the other. I decided to paste in eight Israeli and Palestinian cities and on both sides of the wall.

“The experts said, ‘No way. The people will not accept. The army will shoot you, and Hamas will kidnap you.’ We said, ‘Okay, let’s try and push as far as we can.’ […] We did Face 2 Face with only six friends, two ladders, two brushes, a rented car, a camera and 20,000 square feet of paper. We had all sorts of help from all walks of life.”

The scope of Face 2 Face is amazing, and JR went on to travel the rest of the world, to developing countries, to take portraits of the people living in poverty, and in the midst of conflict, and to give them faces, and paste those faces in amazing places where they can be seen in incredible ways – like from the sky. The entire outface of a Brazilian hillside village, on the leaky roofs on homes in Africa, on Bridges, cliffs, and trains.

In 2010, his film Women Are Heroes was presented at Cannes, and in 2011 he won the $100,000 TED prize, with which he created Inside Out, “an international participatory art project,” in which people were encouraged to have their picture taken in gigantic photobooths installed in their cities – from New York to Fukushima to Tel Aviv and Bethlehem – and paste a giant version of that image wherever they chose, “to support an idea and share their experience.” As of December 2016, over 320,000 people from more than 139 countries had participated.

In Israel and Palestine, the project was dubbed Time is Now, Yalla! (“Yalla” being an Arabic word used by both Israelis and Palestinians, meaning “Let’s go.”)

Palestinians and Israelis were invited to visit the booths and, in exchange for a personal statement, received large-format portraits which were posted throughout the region. Independent teams of photographers and pasters were also on hand to paste, and engage new participants. About 1,000 photos were created each day.

“In some ways, art can change the world. Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create an analogy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions, and then enables you to change the world.”

Watch the TED Talk: