Breaking down barriers with every beat

By Anne Poepjes

Palestinian-born Pierre Dulaine may have had a turbulent start in life, but his determination took him places far and wide.

The four-time ballroom dance champion founded American Ballroom Theater and has had three movies made about his life. But his story doesn’t end there. Find out what he’s doing for Jordanian and Palestinian children all over the world with his dance-inspired vision.

From Jaffa to Amman

to Birmingham

Dulaine (71) was born in Jaffa to a Palestinian mother and an Irish father serving as a British Army Officer. In 1948, classed as Palestinians, they were forced to flee the country, with nothing but the clothes they wore and a suitcase. Searching for a home, they went first to Cyprus, then to Belfast, but neither of these seemed like home, so they came to live in Amman, where his mother’s sister had already settled.

The seasoned dancer has fond memories of life in the ‘old days’, of a tiny city built on seven hills where everybody knew everybody else. “We lived first in Jabal Ashrafiyeh, then on Mango Street in Jabal Amman, and all the kids in the neighbourhood ran in and out of each other’s homes and played together,” recalls the blue-eyed Dulaine fondly. One of his favourite memories is when his school, the College de la Salle Freres, moved to Jabal Hussein. “It was considered so far away that many parents worried about sending their children ‘out of town’!” he exclaims.

But this pleasant life was doomed; in 1956, at the end of the British Mandate Period, all British citizens were advised to leave Jordan. Again, they were perceived as ‘the enemy’ and again left with nothing. Landing in England, they finally settled in Birmingham, where Dulaine grew up. He remembers his teenage years as difficult. “Many teenagers feel isolated and misunderstood,” he acknowledges, “but these feelings were increased by having a strange accent, coming from a different culture, and having a broken tooth, which meant I tried not to smile,” he reveals with a beaming smile brushing back his thick snow-white hair. What changed his life around? Dancing!

From Dabke to Ballroom

When Dulaine, who grew up in his mother’s kitchen listening to Umm Kulthum and Sabah, first tried to learn ballroom dancing, everything seemed hopeless. “I couldn’t pick up on the beat,” he remembers. “All I could dance was dabke (Arab group circle and line dance).”  The only other time he had ever even heard about waltzing was when his mother and father attended King Hussein’s wedding to Queen Dina in Amman when he was only 11. “But I loved it! I knew I could do it and kept on trying,” says Dulaine thus cementing one of his mottos in life:  “NEVER give up!”

And this motto paid off. The four-time world champion founded American Ballroom Theater in 1984 and has had three movies made about his life. But is this the whole story? Poor kid makes good? Not by a long shot. This is actually the beginning of another story for Pierre Dulaine.

Bouncing Teachers – The Pierre Dulaine Way

The passionate Dulaine felt the need to give something back to society, so in 1994, he founded Dancing Classrooms in New York. With the aim of bringing the world of dance to socially disadvantaged youth between 10 and 12 years of age, the programme promotes confidence and self-esteem.

The trim figured dancer targeted schools where students felt rejected by society, as he felt as a child, and aimed to instill a sense of self-respect. He knew that you can achieve your goals if you receive positive encouragement and maintain discipline. “If you are treated with respect, you give back respect,” Dulaine believes. “Dancing is a great way to inspire this idea.”

School management was initially skeptical, but they couldn’t argue with the results. The whole community, from the classroom teachers to the bus drivers, reported positive changes. Students in Dancing Classrooms were more respectful of their peers and less likely to be involved in antisocial behaviour. “Students who had previously fought against each other in gangs came together on the dance floor,” discloses Dulaine with a satisfied smile. The discipline from the dancing programme not only extended into their school work, with academic success, but also into the local community, where alienated groups were now forming friendships and working together.

Beginning in one school in Manhattan more than 20 years ago, the Dancing Classrooms programme has now spread to more than 500 schools across the United States and also runs in Geneva, Zurich, Toronto and the Virgin Islands. Closer to home, Dancing Classrooms is active in two schools in Amman.

Linking disconnected communities 

Although the programme was such a triumph, Dulaine didn’t rest on his laurels; instead, he showed the world that he will never give up on linking disconnected communities. In 2011, he went back to his roots and returned to Jaffa. Although having left as a small child, he walked the streets dreaming about the house he had lived in as a boy, surrounded by all his aunts, uncles and cousins. “My main reason for the visit, however, was not to recapture the essence of my childhood,” he points out, but to “bring my ideas of tolerance and acceptance to a fractured society.” With an Irish Protestant father and a Palestinian Catholic mother, Dulaine is no stranger to ethnic and religious dissent. But, he says, “My parents always insisted that you look past the label and at the person underneath.”

Dulaine was lucky to find support in the local community to bring his dream to reality in Jaffa. Both sides resisted strongly. In Arab culture, it is not usual for boys and girls to dance together. It was only the relatively young age of the children and Dulaine’s Palestinian roots, with his ability to speak to them as a compatriot, that overcame their opposition. And for the Jewish families, the thought of their children dancing with the ‘enemy’ was a frightening prospect. But the end result was a success. From a shaky start in 2013, documented in Dancing in Jaffa, Dancing Classrooms now operates in different parts of Palestine.

Dance, not war!

Pasted on the community centre walls of Jaffa in 2013 is “Dance, not war!”,  the message that Pierre Dulaine is striving to bring to fruition. His dream is to bring the world together on the dance floor, to synchronise our hearts as well as our feet and to recognise that we are all partners with a common goal – to leave the world a better place for our children. As he says, “If the worst argument our politicians could have was, “How do we get the steps right?’, wouldn’t it be a better world?”

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