When Pierre Dulaine first left Jaffa, he was just a small boy. When he returned to the Israeli city in 2011, it was as a man on a mission: unite the children of the city, a place where conflict between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis is deeply ingrained. His method? Teach them to dance together.
“When you touch someone, something happens. And when you touch someone with respect and compassion, you get that respect and compassion back,” he tells TIME. “The dancing frame is known as the embrace hold. If I’m dancing with you, I am in an embrace hold with you — how can I be angry with you?”
Dulaine’s ballroom-ready efforts are the subject of the documentary Dancing in Jaffa, which had a festival run last year and arrives in theaters and on VOD on April 11. And Dancing in Jaffa isn’t his first spin around this particular dance floor: Dulaine’s work with a similar program in New York City schools — a program that has served more than 350,000 New Yorkers since 1994 — was the basis of the movie Mad Hot Ballroom, and he was also the inspiration for the main character in the 2006 Antonio Banderas vehicle Take the Lead. Produce Diane Nabatoff has worked with him since 2000, when she optioned his life rights, and helped turn this latest venture into a movie, too. “When he said he was going to go, I followed him,” she says. “He’s my hero.”
That doesn’t mean it was always easy. “I did not know the difficulties I would have,” Dulaine says. “At the beginning, I was tearing my hair out.”
Then again, in a pre-Dancing with the Stars world, it wasn’t easy to get the program off the ground in New York either. Tweens don’t want to touch each other anywhere in the world, Dulaine says, and the 10-week dance program in Jaffa had lots of push-back from kids and parents alike. And yet, 500 people showed up for the final competition, and the program has since grown throughout Arab and Jewish schools in the country. He describes it as the hardest but most rewarding project he’s ever worked on.
But, as he tells it, he didn’t exactly have a choice: “Once you start a project with a child, if you give up, they’re scarred, many of them for life,” he says. “I had to see it through.”