Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Pierre Dulaine

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Born in Jaffa in 1944 in what was then Palestine, dance instructor Pierre Dulaine does more than teach people to coordinate their steps and move to the music. He teaches tolerance, respect and kindness toward others. As the founder of Dancing Classrooms and the Pierre Dulaine method for teaching ballroom dancing, he has helped change lives and develop social skills in fifth- and eighth-grade children. "Mad Hot Ballroom" (2005) and "Take the Lead" (2006) are two movies made about Mr. Dulaine and his inspirational dance classes. He was able to bring Palestinian and Israeli children together through dance in the "Dancing in Jaffa" project, the subject of a yet to be released 2012 documentary -- taking historical enemies and, by making them dance partners, teaching them respect. The charismatic teacher was in town in June for Pittsburgh Mercy Health System's Mad Hot Ballroom Pittsburgh event to benefit Mercy Behavioral Health's Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh program.

Was there ever a moment you thought the Jaffa Dance project would fail or was in danger of failing?

Honestly, I'm a Taurus. I'm very stubborn, meaning I don't take no for an answer because it has been a dream of mine for so long, so the answer would be a no. But when I was there, there were a couple of moments when I thought, "Oh my God, I can't fail." I mean the idea comes when I saw how difficult it was for the children. I know, as a teaching artist, that it is very hard for children to actually touch each other for the first time without any of the problems there were in Jaffa. Just for ordinary children in the States we all have the same problem from not knowing the other person, never mind the other person being an enemy. In Jaffa it's a whole different kettle of fish. The Palestinian Israelis or the Israeli Palestinians -- however you put it -- traditionally don't dance with each other. So the second encounter was to get them to dance with the other community. It was a double whammer.

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Hear more of this interview with Pierre Dulaine.

You were doing some major negotiating.

Yes, yes. Even negotiating with the Jewish schools. Not as hard because they are modern-thinking, if you want to use that word. With the Arab-speaking schools it was not easy, but because I didn't have an ulterior motive [they agreed]. The world is becoming smaller and smaller. The parent or headmaster or mistress of a school cannot shut the world out. You are supposed to be teaching children for the next 20, 30, 50 years to live a universal life.

Is that the argument you used to break down their resistance to the project?

Exactly. One classroom teacher, for instance, in a Jewish school tells me, "You know, Pierre, I am against this. ... You are taking time away from teaching them Hebrew." By the fifth week she said, "Oh my God, I take it all back. I now understand what you are doing." So that for me was wonderful. She admitted it because she sees the life skills these kids are learning. To give you a picture, I taught in five schools: two Arabic schools, two Jewish schools and one school that had a mixture of the two communities. The two communities had three religions --the Jewish religion, the Muslim religion and the Christian religion -- and that was the best school. I am talking about from a social interaction point of view. Kids don't see anything. Kids don't see color.

Did you find the desire to overcome the differences was strong in Jaffa?

People on the ground -- people are people are people. They want peace with each other. The problem is the political situation with the government. If you are a Palestinian Arab-speaking person in Jaffa, you are like a second-rate citizen. You have the rights of fellow Israelis of course, but somehow you are looked down upon. If I may compare it to our country here, if you are an African-American person, it's harder to get on in life.

There is a built-in resistance.

Absolutely it is there. If I could get a Palestinian boy and girl to stand and dance with a Jewish boy and girl and feel good about themselves and feel they need each other as a team and stand tall together -- these are the impressions I wanted to leave them with for life.

I love that the parents went along with this.

Yes, I am talking about parents from the Muslim community wearing hijab. So they were very, very religious people, but they allowed their daughter or son to dance. Excuse me for saying this, and it is not from a big-headed point of view, but nobody else could have done it except myself. It is because I speak Arabic. I was one of them. I think that was the key. The most wonderful thing is the fact that the program is continuing. They are doing the second semester now in two of the Arab schools, plus some other schools that I taught in.

What is it that you find so powerful about dance?

I think first of all music sends you somewhere else, but from our point of view it is the touching. When I touch you something happens. You and I can be standing with a meter between us. I come closer to half a meter, a quarter of a meter, 4 inches apart, and as I am edging closer the brain is sending messages. What is going on? What does he want? Then I am touching you and the way I hold and the way I put my hand on your shoulder blade -- is it firm? Is it gentle? These messages are going to the brain. I am told to put my hand on your shoulder blade with elegance and with respect, and you are told to put your hand on my upper arm, and we have to move together. So now it is not so much about the touching as the steps. Side together, side together or whatever it is. There is a lot of fun. A lot of laughter. When you are laughing you are relaxing. I have to give them a safe space because they have to like me before they can accept me.

Forgetting they are long-time enemies, children at a certain age are so awkward with the opposite sex. How do you create that safe place?

To laugh with them. To have respect and compassion for them. These are the words, respect and compassion. We train our teachers [in New York] -- like those who came out to Pittsburgh -- and all of the teachers there are trained by me. We teach them to speak to children in a way that is respectful. We understand the hands are sweaty. The palms are really wet from being nervous. We understand that, and we tell them this ahead of time. We call them ladies and gentlemen. When there is a problem and they can't do something -- let's sit down and discuss it. I joke around with this one, "Ladies and gentlemen, please, I need you now to constipate -- oh, I mean concentrate!" They know I speak with an accent, and they know what constipate means, so they laugh. As soon as they laugh I have them in my hand. It takes like 40 minutes to get them to touch each other. We are teaching them ballroom dancing but really very, very slowly and in a fun way.

Pierre, what was it about your own childhood that inspired all this?

Well, being born in the Middle East and living there and coming to England at 14. I was shy and spoke with an accent, no confidence. My front tooth was broken in half, so of course I didn't smile at all. Many of my friends at school went to a dancing school that happened to be down the road that I lived on. I went there. I had no money; my dad was ill in bed. So I washed cars (two cars of my boss), and I delivered newspapers in the morning before school. This money I spent on my dance classes. I liked it so I stayed with it. I was not good at the beginning, but that really changed me to the person that I am. I believe it is organic. It started through me, through my own being. It's not like a business. Slowly I volunteered my way in a school 18 odd years ago and in 1994 started Dancing Classrooms. Who knew from one class [that] we have now served over 300,000 kids.


Patricia Sheridan: or 412-263-2613.


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