Film — Mad Hot Ballroom (PG)


By Amy Diaz

A group of 10- and 11-year-olds T-A-N-G-O with style in the charming, engrossing documentary Mad Hot Ballroom.

“Mad hot” is actually the way a group of girls describe dancing the merengue , which seems to be the favorite of the group of ballroom dances that the kids of New York City’s public school’s fifth grades learn as a normal part of their curriculum. After learning how to dance as a class, a group of the kids are chose to participate in a competition that eventually awards the best dance team in the city. The story looks at a bunch of different dancing groups but most specifically follows three schools, one each from Bensonhurst, Tribeca and Washington Heights. It’s this last group of kids that are most engaging — primarily Dominican immigrants, many of the kids speak Spanish and get from their teachers a sense of how to easy not only into dancing but also into greater society.  They learn the intricacies of merengue, tango, foxtrot and rhumba and almost all of the students are eventually able to dance as well as your average couple taught a few steps for their wedding. The process of learning to dance gives them a sense of community with their fellow students and a way to socialize with children of the opposite sex right at the point in their lives where both of these things are about to get more difficult. Introduced with all sorts of well-rounded-educational-goals (introduction of the arts, a confidence builder, social skills useful in later life), the program is one that matter-of-factly involves kids of all economic and social backgrounds in an activity one  usually associates with the prep-school kids from wealthy families. (Unlike, say, the moronic square-dancing introduced to students as part of gym class when I was a kid, ballroom dancing actually gives you a skill that will help in later life. A kid who can merengue or foxtrot will never want for partners at social events in his adulthood.) No kid is too poor, too fat, too unpopular to dance —they all do and eventually they all do with the goofy smiles of kids self-consciously enjoying themselves.

The movie breaks up scenes of dance-class-footage with interviews with the children, often in groups. A scene of boys playing pool and discussing girls and politics is entertaining in part because it probably won’t vary much for the next 12 years of their lives. Scenes with girls display something that, sadly, probably will change and very soon — the girls often display ambition for academic and professional success. They talk about how they like certain boys but are more interested in school and in becoming everything from dancers to doctors. The dancing seems to reinforce this sense that good behavior isn’t just “what you should do,” it can actually be rewarding. Such a message is very welcome in the lives of these kids, especially the ones that are growing up in unhappy families surrounded by violent communities.

The movie is sort of obvious in its handling of all of this. The message (School Arts Programs are Very Good) is at least as important as the characters and is given far more camera time than any one of the many students who twirl across their schools’ activity rooms. The documentary is far more slice-of-life than it is examination-of-life. We learn as much about these kids as we would from a classroom visit or a mediocre newspaper feature but we don’t get the sense that we’ve received any great study of a phenomena.

Nevertheless, the story grabs you and keeps you interested. Mad Hot Ballroom is by far the most entertaining school recital ever.

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