Rencontre avec Pierre Dulaine, par Johana Levy

Pierre Dulaine est un véritable gentleman. Avant l’interview j’ai commandé un thé qui m’a été servi sur plateau. Il vient me chercher et prend d’autorité le plateau. Il m’escorte ainsi jusqu’au petit salon où il reçoit les journalistes. Il se montre très bavard, charmant ; les 45 minutes qui me sont imparties passent comme dans un rêve.

dancing in jaffa pierre dulaine hilla medalia afficheJohana LEVY : Do you speak Hebrew?

Pierre Dulaine : No, I say « Sliha sliha », I say « Rega, rega ! », « Ehad, chtayim, chaloch », « ma chlomkha, ma chlomkhim, ma chlomekh », two or three words, that’s all.

Ok. So, I will begin with you. Why did you come to the dance, why did you choose to learn this dance, when you were a kid ?

You know, I was born in Palestine, and we came to live in Ireland. My father was Irish, protestant, my mother Palestinian catholic, they told him: “we don’t like your wife, she’s catholic, she’s Arab, we don’t want that”, so we went back in Jordan, and I go to the College des Frères, Saint Jean Baptiste de la Salle, a French school, so we were able to speak French at school, Arabic on the street and only English at home.  My father got working with the United Nations, and then Suez Canal crisis went along, before you were born, so we lost our home again, we then came to England, Birmingham. So the thing is, I took up dancing there, because I felt very alone, I didn’t have confidence, I spoke English with funny accent, and people made fun of me at school. There was a girl in ma class, in school, who invited me seeing her dance, I went, I started. It was a place where I could lose myself, and I started being with adult people, I was 14 years old, I was accepted, so your confidence grows. 55 years later, I want to give back something to society, I chose the dance that did a lot for me. I enjoyed it, I became a champion, I earned my money from it, so I was very blessed, very lucky.

When you began to learn, wasn’t it difficult? What reaction did you have? Did you like it immediately ?

I had a very bad teacher. She was a bitch. Really was, I’m sorry. I grew up listening only, mainly, to Arabic music. I didn’t understand the music I had to dance on, and she didn’t have much patience. I was very very bad, but I became good. My father died when I was fifteen, when he was 47 years old, very young man, which left my mother foreigner in England, so we didn’t have any money. I used to go deliver newspapers in the morning before school, and I also cleaned two cars at the week-end, to make the money. And this money payed for my dancing classes. I was not good, but I stayed with it. Then I moved down to London. Pierre Dulaine is a professional name. I was Peter Heney. But at the French school people called me “Pierre”. When I came to London I wanted people to call me “Mister Pierre”, but they didn’t let me do, they thought it was old fashioned, I had to have a nom, not a prénom. I thought I’m gonna be famous one day and I didn’t like Pierre Heney.

Why not ?

It doesn’t go!

Why not ?

It is not a rhythm.

OK… (pas convaincue mais bon on n’allait pas y passer 107 ans).

So a friend of me made it Dulaine. Because it’s 2 syllables: Pi-erre Du-laine and when the English people see it, they can pronounce it. If they year it, they can write it.

And in my passport, I have two names: my birth name, and my professional name. So many times when I’m in Israel, oh my god… three hours interrogation in, three hours interrogation out. “You were born in Jaffa, why don’t you have an Israeli passport?” anyway….

Did you stay calm ?

No, I lost my temper. Well, not exactly. Someone interrogates me for 10-15 minutes, and then someone else comes in, and: the same questions. Anyway; I understand.

OK. How did you have the idea of these dancing classrooms ?

You come to a place, a time, in your life, that you want to give something back to society. And, because dancing changed me a lot, I volunteered my way to the school and it was successful, I liked it, the kids loved it, and so slowly I began the program. So, it is not like starting a business, where you have a three year or four year plan, it was little bit little bit and then suddenly… “pop”!

And now you have lots of partners in 5 countries…

That is correct, 31 cities, 5 countries, over 400 000 children have done the program, so I am very proud of the fact that the program continues in Israel. And this is Miri Sharaf Levi who helped me find the 5 schools. And I visited Israel three timesbefore the program started, September, December and January, meeting with the parents, with the schools…

It was the first time you came to Israel ?

Yes, but before that, my mother had tried to get our house back. You know the “taboo”? In Hebrew? The Land Registry Office. (le cadastre). My grandfather left the house to his wife Rosa, and my mother and her sisters married English people, so they can claim it. They payed a lot of money to a lawyer, but it didn’t happen.

The scene in the movie is very hard. I didn’t understand why you couldn’t even approach the house.

I will tell you. I knew the man, I’d seen him, he lives there illegally, they were renting from my grandmother, and they paid my mother some rent, but they stopped paying afterwards, and I had been up to the roof, and I wanted Yvonne to go up. But with Yvonne, they wanted to film, and he would have been seen on film. And that’s the reason of the “get out of here”.

I guess it was a very difficult experience for you.

Yes. I didn’t believe that he didn’t want us to go in, and that he wanted to shoot us.

That was frightening.

He was really angry. And that gives you the context. When I meet with the Palestinian parents, they accepted me because I speak Palestinian-Arabic. And I gave them the idea that I wanted to give their children confidence, self-esteem. To dance with the Jews was another thing. But the third and more important thing is that it is being filmed, which means other people in the Arab communities will see their children dancing with a Jew. And what will they say? This gives you the context of this man. He’s an Arab.

Back to the dance and the kids. I don’t understand why you show the video of the dance with Yvonne only at the 10th lesson. Why not earlier ?

They’re not ready for it. Our program is ten weeks long, two times a week. On lesson number ten, we show the children in America video clips of different people dancing. And then on lesson number 12, we have a guest teacher come. So they need to have learned a few rhythms first. So by lesson number 10, they will have learnt meringue, fox-trot, rumba, polka. They will have learned four dances, plus some hip-hop. And so by then we have them in our hands, a little bit. But when Yvonne arrives, that’s when it changes. Completely.

Are there any kids who participated in these dancing classrooms in Israel or elsewhere who continue in dance just like you and become champions or professionals ?

Yes. The answer is yes. We are very lucky in NYC being our headquarters, I have my own dancing studio on the fifth avenue. I started 15 years ago a week end program called Dancing Classrooms Academy. And the children who have our program in schools, we invite them to come at the week-end, to continue dancing. They pay very little money, and they have classes from 10 to 6 o’clock, on Saturday and Sunday, and we have over 600 children participate. A few of them who go now to college, aged 17-18, have become amateur competition, and they do quite nicely. One of them is now one of our teachers. In Israel, the program exists in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Galilee.

Why not in Jerusalem ?

Not yet. It’s very difficult, because in America the schools don’t have money, they pay us 50% . The other 50% we must go begging. Fundraising is not easy in Israël. Jewish people are very very generous with their money, for hospitals, for museums, and they want to see their name out there, but for education, they don’t seem to do that.

Noor, Lois, Alaa, the children are friends by the end of the documentary. Are they still friends ?

Yes. They are in Paris right now. And the mother of Lois.

She’s a funny person. She’s a yiddishe mamma. You know what it means ?

Well, Miri Sharaf was my yiddishe mamma, because she used to bring the food…

Did it create links between the schools that participated in the program ?

Good question. I don’t know. Noor and Lois go to the same school now, cause they went from elementary to middle school, not in the same class, and Alaa of course is in an Arab school. Parents have kept in contact, but have the schools stayed in contact? That’s lovely to hear. I don’t know. The problem is, I did a special thing, by bringing them a third time to the Jewish Arab community centre. The program is 2 times a week in their respective schools. But on Monday, one class from here, one class from here, come to there after school, on Tuesday, another 2 class, so instead of 30 kids I’m teaching 60. So I had 20 sessions with them on their own, and only 7 sessions together. So it was very difficult for me, the first 3 or 4 sessions, when they were together. It only became easier after. But Miri doesn’t have that opportunity, she can’t make them meet. They only meet at the very end, for a party. There is no competition, it takes time. In New York we did it after 6 or 7 years.

It takes time to get the program growing, but I think she (Miri Sharaf Levy) will. But again, it’s about money. It costs money.

So for the moment, the program in Israel doesn’t make the Arab and the Israeli children meet. Only at the end, at the party. In the documentary, we felt it was your aim to make them meet and know each other. We understood it was for peace. Peace was your aim.

I don’t know. It takes time, but I honestly don’t know. My condition to do this was that: I could only do it if I could bring them together. The program in other countries is not designed like that. By the way, last year, I was in Belfast, where my father was born. As you know there are many problems in Belfast, with the Protestants and Catholics, even now, but I worked in 2 Catholic schools, and 2 Protestant schools, and I brought them together. And it was lovely. But the program is not continuing there, there’s no bloody money in the school system to put this. My dream (but I don’t know if I will be alive) is to have the program “Dancing Classrooms” in every school, in every city, in every country.

Because, in Jaffa we had many problems with this classroom teachers, who said that I’m taking time away from the history or from the geography lessons. The dancing lessons were on the time of the school day, otherwise we would have 20 girls and 2 boys. Dance lessons is the only opportunity to teach them life skills.

Did you try to have a partnership with the government, with the ministry of education ? With the cities ? 

Miri Sharaf opened the doors for me. She said to the Arab schools that I was coming to see the schools. She didn’t speak about the dance lessons. Then I had to charm them.

In Hebrew we say : Kol hakavod.

Yes, I learnt it.

What is the next country where you want to create these dancing classrooms ?

France. I have wonderful friends at the Dancing board who are from France. The head of the Fédération de Danse en France would like the program to continue. I think that thanks to people like him and you, writing about it, something will happen. Last night, I saw a young man after the movie, asking me how he can do to get the program in the school where he teaches dancing. I gave him my card and told to send me an email that I will transfer to my head office. There is interest. I was in Luxembourg, in Berlin, where I met a Palestinian doctor, a woman, who said there was much problem between the Jewish community in Berlin and the Palestinian community. Would I be interested to go over there and bringing them together? It’s a matter of time. Cause I think it’s truth, we’re going back to truth here. And it takes time. It’s ok.

What happened with the little Israeli girl who was so angry at you ?

She was the worst kid in the class, never participated, never wanted to dance. For the competition, I chose the kids together with the classrooms teachers. We wanted the best dancers. And she was not the best dancer and she was a trouble maker, and she refused to dance. And suddenly she’s not picked! But she came to final competition with her friends to cheer.

I did not know that Noor had no father, I did not know that Lois was from a sperm bank, I did not know any of these stories until I saw the film.

Come on !

I was too busy with the classes, we had no time to talk! When they finish with me, they have to go film the children. We have 400 hours of footage.

How did they choose ? It’s so difficult to choose which scene they will keep…

That’s what I mean. At the beginning they film everything every minute. And then slowly it bubbles up. And so they have five or six children.

There was only one camera ?

Every day yes, but at the competition there were 3.

And how did they choose Noor, Alaa, Lois? It was just a matter of feeling ?

The director did a lot of homework afterwards, meaning, which one had a story to tell that would move the story forward. In a documentary you’re just shooting and then the story is coming to you. Hila Medalia chose which kids would be the stars.

So it’s a coincidence, that among the children you chose for the competition, there were the three children that were chosen to be the stars of the film ?

That’s a very very good question. You have to remember that we had problems getting them together; I had no problem with Alaa, and no problem with Lois. Lois wants to dance. So that was an easy choice. I started with about 150 children, I ended up with 125, and then for the competition 84. So it’s a big percentage of the children that were competing. So it had to be those kids in any case.

So I guess now you continue to teach ?

I’m retired. J’ai 70 ans. April 23 is my birthday. I am now the ambassador for “Dancing Classrooms”, I’m the founder and ambassador.

Ok, I think that’s all…

You’re beautiful Johana, thank you ! Mucho mucho, walla ! So well prepared !

Thank you Pierre, I have one last question: are you still in contact with some kids from Jaffa ? On Facebook ?

On Facebook, yeah. They’re wonderful kids. They put things on Facebook, I like it, I wish them happy birthday… It’s important ; it’s special.

It was a pleasure. Thank you. Really.

Propos recueillis à Paris le 11 mars 2014 par Johana LEVY.

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