Hilla Medalia’s documentary Dancing in Jaffa derives its strength, much like a dancer’s, from various isolated strains.
Pierre Dulaine is a famous ballroom dancer and instructor (played by Antonio Banderas in 2006’s Take the Lead), and his Dancing Classrooms project in New York City is a character-building program for elementary- and middle-school-age kids.
Dulaine brings his idealism about the power of dancing to his hometown of Jaffa, Israel, a Tel Aviv suburb and ancient port city of Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
The story, like so many in the Middle East, is pocked with complexities. Dulaine is a Palestinian (his mother was Palestinian and French, his father an Irish soldier) whose family lost their home after the 1948 war. Medalia, as an Israeli, knows this bumpy territory well and serves up her story sensitively, but with its difficulties unvarnished and unsolved.
She focuses on a few children whom we get to know well enough to care very much about their progress. Dulaine himself is one of those beautifully arrogant masters of his craft, which enables him to overpower all kinds of resistance from his 11-year-old pupils — their awkward bodies, their awkward emotions, their politics, their religions, their fears — and confront his own intense brew of mixed emotions.
“In ballroom dancing, there has to be certain amount of trust,” Dulaine says, and that, plus the rhumba, the tango, and the merengue, are his gifts to the children of Jaffa.