In 1994, long before ballroom dancing received mainstream acclaim through the wildly popular TV show Dancing With The Stars (which premiered in 2005 and is now in its 18th season after having received multiple EMMY nominations almost every year from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences), Dulaine created the “Dancing Classrooms” program, which has become his lasting legacy.
Dulaine began his own dancing career in Birmingham, England in 1958 when he was 14 years old. By 1966, Dulaine was in London performing in West End nightclubs and competing in events like the All England Professional Latin American Championships. And by 1972, he had made his way to Manhattan, where he added teaching assignments at prestigious schools like the American Ballet Theatre and Juilliard to his already extraordinary resume.
Another visionary named Diane Nabatoff optioned the rights to Dulaine’s life-story in 2000. In 2006, she released the narrative feature Take The Lead, directed by Liz Friedlander and starring gorgeous Antonio Banderas as Dulaine.
Meanwhile, filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo produced and directed Mad Hot Ballroom, which was named one of the Top Five Documentaries of 2005 by the National Board of Review. (To orient yourself, recall that the Oscar winner for that year in the Documentary category was March of the Penguins.)
But the character called “Pierre Dulaine” in Take The Lead is heavily fictionalized, and the person identified as “Pierre Dulaine” in Mad Hot Ballroom serves only as the “Master of Ceremonies” at various competitions. He is always in the background and he is never interviewed on camera.
Now, finally, in 2014, Pierre Dulaine is very much front and center, touring the world with the Dancing in Jaffa team as the star of his own life story, and it turns out that story begins in Mandate Palestine.
Dulaine was born in Jaffa in April 1944. As he tells us in Dancing in Jaffa, his mother was part Palestinian and part French, and his father was a British soldier of Irish descent. These were complicated times and Dulaine’s heritage magnified the complexity considerably: Palestinian, French, British, Irish… oy!
The one thing Dulaine clearly was not was Jewish, and in 1948, after Jaffa became part of the new state of Israel, his family began wandering, living for a time in Amman, Jordan before eventually settling in Birmingham.
(Note that the precise reason Dulaine’s parents decided to leave Jaffa is never made clear. Dulaine implies that they had to leave because of the Israeli takeover, but this is unlikely. Obviously many Palestinians still live in Jaffa –that is why this film is set there — and other Israeli films like Ajami and Jaffa have already mined this territory. More likely, they had to leave in 1948 when the rest of the British Army did… but who knows…)
Decades later, after the huge success of the “Dancing Classrooms” program—which now serves thousands of children all around the world—Dulaine returns to his birthplace to sprinkle magic dust over a set of selected schools in Jaffa… and the amazing thing is, it works!
By the time of the final competition, Hebrew-speaking children are dancing with children who mostly speak Arabic, and Palestinian mothers in hijab are sitting next to Israeli mothers in tee shirts. The boys and girls on the dance floor are poised and graceful, their teachers are beaming, and everyone in the bleachers is clapping and cheering.
Outside the warm dance spaces, however, “real life” continues to be just as complex as ever. Award-winning Israeli director Hilla Medalia includes tension-filled street scenes with Israeli adults marching in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut while Palestinian protesters commemorate the Nakba.
What holds the narrative together is the gradual emergence of Dancing in Jaffa’s true star: Noor Gabai.
Noor is the daughter of a Jewish woman who converted to Islam when she married a Palestinian man. Although she is raising her daughter as a Palestinian, Noor’s mother, now a widow, sends her daughter to one of the few mixed schools in Jaffa that is committed to treating all students equally. Nevertheless, when we first meet her, Noor is sullen and resentful. Classmates say they are afraid of her, and no one wants to dance with her. Then Pierre appears and he sweeps her up in his arms and he changes her life.
What will happen to Noor and the rest of these children after Dulaine is long gone? Maybe someday Hilla Medalia will do a Part Two, but for now the only thing we know for sure is that Pierre Dulaine has created something that should be too good to be true… and yet… somehow… it works!
Top Photo: Noor Gabai.
Bottom Photo: Pierre Dulaine.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of IFC.
For more on Dancing in Jaffa from the feminist perspective, click HERE.