"May I have this dance... please?"
This question has been posed countless times by Pierre Dulaine, ballroom dancer and four-time world champion. Few can answer "no."
I first met Mr. Pierre in 2000 when I optioned his rights to produce the film, Take the Lead, which depicted his struggle to bring ballroom dancing to the public schools of New York City. Though he began with 30 reluctant students, he went on to teach over 400,000. Pierre's program, Dancing Classrooms, was also the subject of the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom.
Now, a decade after we first met, Pierre was embarking on a new challenge. He was fulfilling his lifelong dream of returning to Jaffa, where he was born, to teach Jewish and Palestinian Israeli children to dance together. If anyone could form a bridge between communities that have lived side by side for generations without meaningful interaction, it was Pierre. I knew I had to go with him to document his journey.
For 10 weeks, Pierre taught one hundred and fifty 11-year-olds how to ballroom dance. At first, the children were spitting on each other and pulling down their shirtsleeves so their skin wouldn't touch. By the end, they were holding each other and respecting each other. 500 people attended the final competition. Veiled Muslim women sat next to Jewish women exchanging phone numbers -- a scene no one could have imagined before the dance program began.
How did this happen?
Ballroom dance forces two people to move as one. It teaches life skills including trust, compassion, and discipline -- all while having fun. Most importantly, it teaches self respect and respect for your partner and that one does not preclude the other.
If you are referred to as a Lady or Gentleman, you regard yourself differently and stand up a little straighter.
If you stand up straighter, you feel more positive and powerful and others perceive you accordingly.
If you master the steps, you have a feeling of confidence and your self-esteem rises. Any shyness or timidity melts away.
If you hold another person, you get to know that person, feel their reaction to your touch and your impression of them is altered. They are no longer a label but a human being.
When you begin moving as one, it is a smooth and wonderful shared journey.
It is impossible to participate in Pierre's program and not feel a chemical change in your mind and body. Any preexisting anger, hostility, or depression vanishes.
Pierre went into a city filled with hate and conflict and in just 10 weeks created change. Within these schools, he found a way to stop the hate and shift the paradigm.
Although we filmed in Jaffa, hatred, prejudice and segregation are global issues. Pierre created a simple program, easily replicable worldwide, that changes how people feel about themselves and others. He recently debuted his dance program in another city of conflict, Belfast, and it was equally successful.
This dance program is not only for children. Pierre has taken the same program to psychiatric wards in Geneva and homeless shelters in Phoenix. He teaches everyone the same way regardless of age, culture, or geography -- and they all experience the same results and the same fun. The patients who danced with their doctors and caregivers showed marked improvement and the program was so successful that it spread from private clinics to government hospitals. The homeless felt once again like human beings. Through dance, they became ladies and gentlemen and started to regain their sense of dignity.
Imagine if Pierre's programs were put in every school, in every city, in every country. Perhaps we could alter the landscape of war and politics. At a minimum, we could alter the acceptance of the status quo. One thing is clear -- if you change the children, you change the future.
One step at a time.
DANCING IN JAFFA opens in NY and on VOD on April 11 and in LA on April 18.