What do you think of when you think of ballroom dancing?
Formality that sometimes sparks and catches and turns into magic?
That’s what the dancer and dance teacher Pierre Dulaine thinks.
And then there is the dance that is Pierre Dulaine’s own life, less a formal ballroom performance than a sinuous chase after dreams, through worlds, ending up in some ways where he had begun, but in other ways not at all.
He ended up creating Dancing Classrooms, a program that brings the combination of creativity and technique that ballroom dancing — in fact that all art, to varying degrees — entails to children. He brings them both discipline and delight.
Okay. Here’s the straightforward version of his life.
Pierre Dulaine was born in Jaffa, Palestine, in 1944. His mother, Georgetta Safadi, was Palestinian, and his father, Eric Alexandre Heney, was from northern Ireland, a Protestant, from a family of Protestant ministers. Georgetta and Eric met and married in Jaffa, and Pierre grew up Catholic, like his mother.
History intruded. “In 1948 the state of Israel was created, and we had to leave,” Pierre said. The family moved to Amman, Jordan, where he grew up; his education came from the College des Frères. Pierre grew up speaking “Arabic on the street, French at school, and English — only English — at home. We had to make sure that we knew we were British,” he said. And the Pierre part? The French name? That story comes later; back then, his name was Peter Heney.
And then history hit again. “On November 2, 1956, we lost our home and we had to flee, because of the Suez Canal crisis,” Pierre said. “We were British, so we couldn’t hang around there.”
The family went to England, and established themselves in Birmingham. “I was 12,” Pierre said. He was unhappy. He did not fit in. “I was bullied,” he said. “I had an accent. I didn’t speak the British way. I had a broken tooth, so I never smiled.
“But when I was 14, one of the girls in the class was going to a local dance studio, and she invited me to go with her.” He did. He loved it. “My personality changed,” he said. And so I stayed with it.” This was still pretty immediately post-war, definitely pre-Beatles, pre-rock ‘n’ roll.
“Eventually, at the age of 20, I went to live in London, and I started teaching at the Arthur Murray dance studio in Leicester Square,” Pierre said. He changed his name to Pierre Dulaine — it sounded ever so much more like a dancer than Peter Heney. His name might be assumed, but his accent is not, and he picked the perfect name for it; when he says Pierre, the double rr in its center sounds as if it’s made up of at least 18 rs. It rolls lusciously off his tongue. It is hard to tease apart the elements of Pierre’s accent, but it is a lovely combination of all his languages and influences.
So — Pierre Dulaine is in London, and “I become famous there,” he said. He had a dance partner; together, “we danced at the Royal Albert Hall.” There was a dance competition that pitted two couples against each other there; the audience chose the winners. “We won that in 1967 and in 1969,” he said. From there, Pierre started performing on cruises, and then became a cruise director. “I had never done anything like that before — but I’m good with people,” he said. His home base remained London.
After some time, he decided to take “a two-week holiday in New York,” he said. “I went to visit the Arthur Murray studio in Columbus Circle, they offered me a job and I said ‘Fine, I’ll stay for three months,’ and then they offered me a work permit. That was in 1971, and I have been here ever since.”
Pierre and his dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, won four world championships in dance, and they were both on Broadway and in London’s East End with a musical called “Grand Hotel.” They also formed the American Ballroom Theater, a traveling company that they took around the world.
When he was performing, Pierre found himself with a lot of free time during the day; most Broadway shows play at night, matinees notwithstanding. “So I volunteered; I taught ballroom dancing at the Performing Arts School on 48th Street.
“That was the seed of what became Dancing Classrooms.”
From there, Pierre expanded to other schools; the program now is in more than 30 cities and five countries around the world, Including Israel.
Dancing Classrooms is a program, mainly for fifth graders — that magic window when girls and boys can sometimes touch each other without fearing that they’ll get cooties, but their hormones have not yet started to rage — where, in a series of 20 classes, they learn the courtesies, craft, partnership skills, and musicality that ballroom dancing demands. It is not accidental that many — most — of those skills are transferable to the rest of life.
“At the heart of the Dulaine method of teaching dance there are elements” demanded of the teacher, Pierre said. “Respect and compassion, to be able to control the children, to teach with humor and joy, to give the children a safe space so they can really enjoy themselves and be free to express themselves.” He knows that many of the children don’t want to be there when they begin; it is up to the teacher to thaw those children out until they can feel the joy inherent in the dance.
“What is great about Dancing Classrooms is that we go to the schools, and so many of the kids are underprivileged. Their parents would never have the money to send their kids to dance school. The program itself is 10 weeks long, and we visit the schools twice a week. The kids learn merengue, foxtrot, rumba, tango, swing, waltz, heel-toe polka, and some fun line dances. So they learn a lot; about 10 different musical styles in 20 lessons. The last lesson is a performance. We call it a ballroom breakfast. Parents are invited, and the kids demonstrate what they have learned.”
Pierre explains his method in a Ted talk; just google Ted Talk Pierre Dulaine to find it. The talk is called “May I Have This Dance, Please”; that’s the formula a boy asks of a girl before they begin to dance. The necessary response is “With pleasure,” he added.
In 2005, a documentary filmmaker made “Red Hot Ballroom,” a look at the program from the kids’ perspective as well as Pierre’s. The documentary, which was well received, linked Pierre to his next adventure.
In 2006, Miri Shahaf-Levi saw the film.
Miri, who since has retired, then was “in charge of all the cultural managers in Israel,” she said; she’d begun her career managing the cultural center in Netanya. Her husband, Yossi Levi, was in charge of the country’s informal education. “Twelve years ago, we watched ‘Mad Hot Ballroom’ in Tel Aviv, and I told my husband I had to find this wonderful person, Pierre Dulaine.
“We’d already booked tickets to New York to visit my brother” — that’s Moshe Golomb, who lives in Tenafly — “so I called my brother and said we have to find Pierre.” They did — his studio was just a block away from her brother’s Manhattan office.
“Miri was surprised to find out that I was Palestinian,” Pierre said. “Her ears opened up.” She asked him if he could bring Dancing Classroom to Israel, and “I said that I would go there only if I could work with both Arab and Jewish Israelis.”
It couldn’t happen right away — both Miri and Pierre had other obligations — “but in February 2011, I stepped in the first school in Jaffa.” They worked with five schools there, in the city where he was born — two Jewish, two Arab, “and the Weizmann School, which had both Jewish and Palestinian children under the same roof, learning together.
“I have to say that this was one of the hardest — if not actually THE hardest — projects I have ever done.
“You are teaching children to dance with the enemy. In the streets, it’s Jews on one side, Palestinians on the other.”
There were other objections to overcome as well. “It was hard for us to convince the Muslim community that it was okay for their kids to dance,” Pierre said. “But because I speak Arabic with a Palestinian accent, I could overcome that.
“And then there was a father in one of the Arab schools who did not want his daughter to dance with a boy.” (Pierre would have encountered a similar problem had he worked in an Israeli religious school, but so far all the Israeli schools have been secular, although Miri now is beginning to talk to religious ones.) “I told the father that it would be good for her to learn discipline, that it would be good for her education, that her grades would be that much better.
“I convinced him, and later he became one of my best spokesmen.
“With the Jewish schools, they wanted it — they liked that it was free — and they didn’t mind letting their children dance, but they didn’t want them to dance with Arabs. It was awkward. But they liked me a lot. We were convincing to them.
“It was hard for both sides. It was okay for them to allow their children to dance with a boy or a girl who is the enemy, but what do you say to your family? To your neighbors? And then, even more, it was being made into a film, for the whole world to know. What do you say?”
That film is called “Dancing in Jaffa.” “It has a wonderful ending,” Pierre said. “You see Jewish parents and Palestinian parents sitting together.
“When you see the film, you see a Jewish woman with her arms completely bare, and sitting next to her you see a completely covered woman in black, wearing a hijab. Both are smiling. Both are cheering their children on. It is very powerful.
“I am so proud of the film! But what I am most proud of is how Miri has developed the program in Israel. She’s become the site director of Dancing Classrooms Israel.”
“I have taken on this wonderful program as my life’s work,” Miri said. “I now have a wonderful team of 15 teaching artists, who are working from the north of Israel, from the border of Lebanon, until Dimona, in the south. We have 100 schools, Jewish and Arab and mixed.”
The program teaches dance, but — and? — it goes deeply into children’s souls.
“You know, step by step, the kids become friends,” Miri said. “They come for breakfast with each other and look each other in the eye. Something happens between them.
Dancing Classrooms has run programs in Israel for five years now, and it has reached about 7,000 students.
Temple Emanu-El of Closter showed “Dancing in Jaffa” last Wednesday; Pierre and Miri were there to answer questions after it was screened. That’s because longtime congregants Drs. Kenny and Sharon Fried of Demarest stumbled across Dancing Classrooms and fell in love with it, just as Miri Shahaf-Levi had.
The Frieds are sponsoring the evening because of Sharon’s Uncle Willie, her father’s brother, a Holocaust survivor who recently died, at 97.
Uncle Willie — more formally, Vilem Zelovic — “had a passion for dancing,” Kenny said. “He was in the jewelry business on 47th Street, and worked till he died. He left money, he didn’t say what to do with it, and we wanted to honor him.
“He was on the cover of Lincoln Center’s brochure, he taught three generations to dance — this is how he faced life.
“Uncle Willie loved Israel, but he never went there. But we thought that his heart always was there.”
So — dance and Israel, and how to honor Uncle Willie?
Sharon is a dermatologist; one of her patients told her about “Red Hot Ballroom,” Kenny said. “So we looked into it. It is amazing.
“We just got back from Ma’alot, where there is a program that we funded there and in a neighboring Arab town. We thought it was a great opportunity, because in this town, that tried fostering respect between the communities, we thought that it might work.
“So we saw it in action. We had an amazing experience. We saw the kids performing; they are planning an end-of-semester joint program where they all will dance hand in hand.”
It’s not as if a bunch of fifth-graders rumba-ing together, boys and girls, Jews and Arabs, will bring peace, or even civility, to the world — but you have to start somewhere. So why not start with magic?