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Rachel Levin
Movie Reviews

Mad Hot Ballroom

by Rachel Levin
June 16, 2005

Mad Hot for Ballroom

Rachel Levin
June 16, 2005

The fourth and fifth graders of New York Public School 115 in Washington Heights have mad skills.

But these aren't the type of skills that the hip-hop slang term "mad" implies. These kids aren't breaking, tagging, and rapping; they're tango-ing, foxtrotting, and swinging.

While the beats and dances of the inner city have been transported ad infinitum to the suburbs via MTV and BET, the documentary film "Mad Hot Ballroom" offers a rare example of ballroom dance coming to the 'hood. It follows several groups of public school children from the New York metropolitan area as they prepare for a 10-week citywide ballroom dance competition.

In the face of an urban educational system that often deindividualizes these kids as mere test scores or crime statistics (after all, the schools are numbered, not named), "Mad Hot Ballroom" and the dance program it documents lets the personalities of these children shine. And, not surprisingly, they are creative, determined, engaged, street-savvy, and downright adorable. Everyone can see a part of themselves in at least one of the children, whether it's the aspiring starlet Tara, the no-nonsense Amber, the mile-a-minute talker Michael, or the quiet charmer Wilson.

Despite the disparate cultural, educational, and economic backgrounds among the schools participating in the competition, dance becomes the great equalizer. The film humorously captures the universal details of young people's first experiences with partner dance. There's the awkwardness of looking into your partner's eyes, the boys who can't lead, and the loud, frilly dresses that someday will be looked back on with nothing but embarrassment. To the film's credit, it doesn't make the children who are not allowed to dance for religious reasons invisible. These children are included as the class "D.J.s," and it is heartwarming to see the children respect each other's cultural differences.

Some children barely know English, and it is clear that most of the featured children's families can't afford private dance lessons or the equipment needed for extracurricular activities that more privileged children enjoy. But dance doesn't require language, prior preparation, or expensive gear. All you need is your body, and this levels the playing field.

The structure of the film also lets bodies speak for themselves. It doesn't drown out the subjects with heavy-handed voiceover narration. The lack of a synthesizing narrator does leave you wanting to know more about the program, but at least it doesn't leave you wanting to know less.

Perhaps the most impressive voices in the film are those of the classroom teachers who devote their lives to these students. The way the teachers help process success and defeat for the kids is infinitely inspiring. The teachers cry along with the children when they lose, but don't for a single second let the kids believe that defeat is reflective of lack of ability. And even as Yomaira, a teacher from P.S. 115, pushes her students toward the grand prize trophy, she'd never allow them to let winning go to their heads. There is a refreshing etiquette of success and defeat that ballroom dancing evokes in the children that sports or academic competitions might not. These are bonafide ladies and gentlemen.

But Yomaira isn't just being magnanimous when she compliments the children on their dancing skills. The Washington Heights team is so above and beyond all the other groups, it's amazing. These aren't gawky kids; they move as well as seasoned performers. Many of the teammates come from Dominican and Puerto Rican backgrounds, so it's possible that merengue and rhumba are already part of the fabric of movement in their families. But they show equal ease and facility with dances like swing and tango.

The ache at the end of this film comes from not knowing what, if any, the impact of this dancing accomplishment will have on the children long-term. Several of the school principals report that the 10 weeks of structured dancing have turned problem kids around. There is no doubt that the discipline and skill building has provided them with a focus for their energy and a sense of mastery. But will ballroom movement translate into social and educational progress as they move into the upper grades and beyond?

Tara, the young starlet, looks across the river to Manhattan—the place "where it all happens" according to her —and expresses the desire to sing, act, and dance when she grows up. Perhaps what the kids are learning as a by-product of the competition is that high-level success in our culture requires refined performance for a mass audience. This is not just true on the dance floor; it is equally true in politics, Hollywood, and the corporate boardroom. If these children can master the art of the dance, maybe just maybe they'll have a leg up in the competition of life that awaits them.

Mad Hot Ballroom

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