There is very little that a couple can do together in public that is more intimate than ballroom dancing. Even in its most chaste form, it requires two people to place one hand in the other’s hand, and one hand on the partner’s shoulder or waist. To do it really successfully, they have to look into one another’s eyes, and, in a sense, think as one.
Pierre Dulaine, the protagonist of Hilla Medalia’s charming new documentary “Dancing in Jaffa,” which opens April 11, knows that better than most. He is a four-time world champion ballroom dancer, born in 1944 in Jaffa to a Palestinian mother and an Anglo-Irish father. They left during the War of Independence, and as the film begins, he is returning to Jaffa for the first time in more than 50 years. His mission, quite simply, is to teach ballroom dancing to children in five Jaffa schools, both Israeli and Palestinian, and to get them to dance together.
“This is how you learn to work with another person,” Dulaine says to the school kids at the outset of the project. His belief is that the very nature of the interaction demanded by ballroom dance will at least dent the atmosphere of almost lethal distrust that is rampant in his old hometown and throughout the region.
As Medalia makes clear from almost the first meetings between dancing master and potential pupils, Dulaine has a tough road ahead of him. He must not only overcome the tension between ethnic groups, he also has to deal with pre-adolescents at a most awkward stage of their development.
Or as countless 10-year-old boys have said throughout history and across the globe, “Girls? Yuck!” Need one add that the feeling is mutual from the other side of the gender divide?
Dulaine, whose personal magnetism and warmth are among the film’s great strengths, is a veteran of these particular conflicts, and handles the boy-girl thing adroitly. He relies on the innate dignity of the children to carry the day and, once they get past their, well, childishness, they show surprising maturity.
Medalia is faced with a tricky formal problem. She could follow the entire project through Dulaine’s eyes. He is a winning personality, highly articulate in English and Arabic and very appealing. But for all his emotional commitment to his small part of the peacemaking process, he is essentially an outsider. She chooses to divide the film’s focus between him and a few of the children. For a documentarian, this is always a bit risky — with no script to protect you, how do you choose which subjects to follow?
Fortunately, unlike the spelling bee documented in the 2002 film “Spellbound,” in which the outcome of a competition is significant in its impact on the kids, the dance contest that ends “Dancing in Jaffa” is not particularly fraught; whom the filmmakers chose to follow is less about picking a winner and more about whose story is the most representative and/or dramatic.
At first, it seems that the film will divide its time among several of the children. Noor is the only Palestinian girl in her class in a predominately Jewish school; her father died when she was barely a year old, and her mother — a Jewish convert to Islam — has lost her job. Noor is bitterly resentful, telling her mother, “I’m the only one who’s got no father.” Lois is a Jewish classmate of hers who, it transpires, has no father either; she is an IVF child whose mother seems to be an ex-hippie. Alaa is a Palestinian kid whose father is a struggling fisherman and he is one of seven kids living, as Dulaine notes, “in a shack, with all of them sleeping in one room.” Alaa is a perky bundle of energy who tries to make a small contribution to the family’s income by scavenging scrap metal on the beach.
Ultimately, the film pretty much becomes Noor’s story. Her unexpected flair for dance opens her up, as one of her teachers says gratefully, giving her a way to express her individuality that blunts her capacity for rage. She bonds with Lois, Lois dances with Alaa, and the entire experience seems to have enriched all of their lives in genuinely satisfying ways.
Medalia tells this story with a disarming simplicity. “Dancing in Jaffa” strikes a nice balance between earnestness and realism. Like Dulaine himself, the film resists the easy sentimentality such material offers. Neither he nor the filmmakers are under any illusions about ballroom dancing as the key to peace in the Middle East. But the benefits of increased self-esteem for a girl like Noor are downright visible on-screen.
At one point towards the end of the film, one of the Palestinian boys has just finished a rehearsal and turns to his classmates with a look of astonished pleasure, exclaiming, “Oh, my God, we were looking into each other’s eyes!”
That feeling is worth something. If there were only a way to convey it to the supposed peace negotiators.
“Dancing in Jaffa” opens Friday April 11 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.; Call  924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com for information. It also plays April 11-16 at the JCC in Manhattan, jccmanhattan.org.
The film will also be available as a Video-on-Demand offering from local cable suppliers; check your local listings for more information.