In the musical genre, dance reconciles opposites: rich and poor, high art and low art, male and female, such divisions cannot resist the magic of a well-turned production number or pas de deux. But champion ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine faced a daunting challenge when he returned to his native city of Jaffa, Israel, to teach 10-year-olds from Jewish and Palestinian schools to join hands and learn to do the tango, rhumba, and merengue.
Hilla Medalia’s documentary “Dancing in Jaffa” captures Dulaine’s flamboyant energy and growing frustrations as he discovers that his joie de vivre may not be a match for the cultural, religious, and gender differences he confronts. At times he nearly gives up and “Dancing” threatens to arrive at the conclusion, unthinkable in films of this type, that not all conflict can be resolved through art and good will. That he achieves as much comes as a relief, but how he manages to do so remains a mystery as Medalia rushes through the process. She skips steps along the way, and because of this, the feel-good denouement seems hampered by two left feet.
Arriving in Jaffa, from which he and his part-Palestinian family fled when Israel achieved its independence in 1948, Dulaine (portrayed by Antonio Banderas in the 2006 feature “Take the Lead,” about his similar program in New York City) seems an irresistible force. He hopes to get these kids to take his 10-week course, dance together, and enter and win a contest. He gushes with good will and jestingly chastises slackers by flicking his necktie at them. But maybe it’s too much, his huge presence intimidating the students and their parents — he can come off as an exotic, demanding intruder.
He has other obstacles to overcome. Not just the antipathy between Jews and Palestinians (which becomes shockingly evident when he tries to visit his old home and has to leave before the new owner resorts to violence), but Islamic taboos against males and females dancing together. When he brings in his old dancing partner, Yvonne Marceau, and a Palestinian guard at one of the schools refuses to shake her hand (“I don’t touch women,” he explains), Marceau asks, “So how are you going to get them to dance together?”
“Dancing” never explains how. Instead, as in similar films such as “Hoop Dreams,” it focuses on the contest, reducing the participants to a handful of representative kids who end up learning something about themselves and others.
Perhaps it’s enough. Like the old footage of Dulaine and Marceau dancing in their prime, defying gravity with grace and skill, just knowing that such things are possible is a step toward learning how.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.