'Dancing in Jaffa' (unrated)

Following your dance dreams to success has become a pop cliché, from TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance to films like the Step Up series. The documentary Dancing in Jaffa shows us dance as the means to a much less glitzy but far more astonishing miracle — crossing some of the world’s bitterest religious and political divisions. Or, at least, taking the first steps in that direction.

The film tells the story of champion ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine’s quixotic-seeming trip to his birthplace of Jaffa, Israel, to set up a ballroom dance program for Jewish and Palestinian children. Dulaine, whose transformative Dancing Classrooms program for New York City public schools was documented in the movie Mad Hot Ballroom, is a true believer.

“When a human being dances with another person. you get to know that person in a way you can’t describe,” he says. The child of a Palestinian mother and Irish father, Dulaine was 4 when his family fled Jaffa — then part of Palestine — during Israel’s 1948 war of independence. He is determined to bring the art form where he found happiness, meaning and identity to a place where those things are in very short supply

While Dulaine knows this will be difficult — “what I’m asking them to do is dance with the enemy” — the obstacles are so formidable that he comes close to giving up. Director Hilla Medalia (who also made To Die in Jerusalem, about a Palestinian suicide bomber and her Israeli doppelgänger) has a sharp eye for the details that reveal the many layers of psychological and social conflict here.

Normal boy-girl squeamishness is magnified by prejudice — some children walk out, or refuse to touch each other. A Palestinian mother says their religion doesn’t permit boys and girls to dance together. The adults are filled with mistrust and hatred: We see rival Jewish (“Israel is a Jewish state!”) and Palestinian (“Israel is a terrorist state!”) demonstrations, a Palestinian teacher telling students that Israel’s Independence Day is a catastrophe, a Jewish teacher relating how family members were killed by suicide bombers.

The kids, of course, absorb this. “If my dad sees me with an Arab he’ll kill me,” one girl giggles nervously to a friend. When Dulaine exerts all his charm to apologize to a Jewish girl who is not chosen for the final competition, she turns away stubbornly — these are not people who let go of their anger.

Plump, dark-eyed Noor, one of three children on whom Jaffa focuses, is understandably angry and withdrawn; weeping at her father’s grave, telling her mother that she hit a boy who cursed Arabs, sure the teacher wouldn’t stop him. “I think you’re going to devour us like a sandwich,” another girl tells her.

Alaa, a poor Palestinian boy, makes a fraught journey to Gaza with his family for a tearful reunion with relatives they haven’t seen for a decade. He is partnered with confident blonde Lois, whose Jewish mother worries the shabby boy will hurt her daughter’s chances in the competition.

And yet Dulaine perseveres. He brings over his longtime partner Yvonne Marceau to help, and as they waltz around a classroom, the children are transfixed by this sudden vision of grace and joy. When no boys will dance with Noor, Dulaine leads her in the merengue, and we see her smile for the first time. As he keeps insisting on manners — smile, look at each other — the children start to absorb the feeling under the form. Their fumbling steps through the tango and rumba become a potent metaphor for a path through a minefield of hatred and resentment, one knee-knocking step at a time.

Jaffa doesn’t end with big transformations, but with little ones: Noor glowing with confidence as she dances in the final competition, Lois basking in Alaa’s attention as he guides her onto his father’s tiny rowboat, an abaya-cloaked Palestinian mother and tank-top-wearing Jewish mother smiling and filming their children together.

When Dulaine asks the children what they’ve learned, Lois answers “to trust one another.” Which is the hardest step of all.

With: Pierre Dulaine, Yvonne Marceau, Noor Gabai, Alaa Bubali, Lois Dana.

Director: Hilla Medalia.

Screenwriters: Hilla Medalia and Philip Shane.

Running time: 89 minutes. In English, Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores, Bill Cosford Cinema.