‘Ballroom’ Movie Dances Into Viewers’ Hearts
Published: June 23, 2005
Funny, touching, and exhilarating, “Mad Hot Ballroom” is a charming documentary that examines the effect that a ballroom dance program has on the lives of school children across the city of New York.
The filmmakers, Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell, follow diverse groups of students in four elementary schools across the city. These four schools are among several who have chosen to participate in American Ballroom Theater’s Dancing Classrooms, a 10-week instructional program that culminates in a citywide dance competition.
Students learn a variety of dances such as the tango, the merengue and the foxtrot. As the teams are chosen and take part in the quarterfinal, semifinal and final competitions, the children experience both excitement and disappointment, and the audience is carried right along with them.
“Mad Hot Ballroom” is presented simply, and it takes awhile to begin to distinguish each school from the others and to learn which students belong at which school. The film is structured around the competition, and the filmmakers do a decent job of building the narrative. The excitement of the contestants is contagious, however, and I defy anyone in the audience not to be on the edge of his or her seat by the time the first place team is announced.
The progression of the teams is shown, from the first day of class until they go to their competitions. The instructional scenes are charming, as the students progress from uncomfortable beginners to experienced dancers. Although much of the humor comes from the children’s awkwardness, the filmmakers are never disrespectful of the children. In fact, they clearly show how the students respond positively to the challenge of the class and begin to be, in one teacher’s words, “little ladies and gentlemen.”
The children are shown in their homes and on their playgrounds as well as in dance classes. As they talk to the camera and to each other, the dance experience becomes a filter through which they can discuss their lives, their families, their friends and the opposite sex. These students are at a critical age, and many of them are from impoverished backgrounds with little opportunity. The film demonstrates how even a short program can have an amazing effect. In many cases the instructors serve as mentors and role models for the kids, and the experience of working as part of a team is invaluable. The students take the competition very seriously. In only ten weeks they not only learn the joy of movement; they also discover important lessons in perseverance, loyalty, accomplishment and discipline. They begin to walk taller, take more pride in themselves, and aim their goals and aspirations a little higher. Even when they suffer a disappointment, they learn from the experience.
Because the filmmakers follow so many children, none are introduced in any great depth. Some favorites emerge: Wilson, who speaks little English but is accepted by the others on the team because he can dance beautifully; Kelvin, who leads by quiet example; Tara, who analyzes her life passionately; Emma, who analyzes everything passionately; Cyrus, who is analytical to a fault; Michael, who is awkward but charming. The documentary, however, does not present a complete picture of any of them. The fact that my only complaint about the film is that it would be nice to know more about them is a testament to how engaging the children are. The glimpses we do see inspire curiosity about what choices the children make and how they get along after the cameras leave.
The group at PS 115 in Washington Heights is followed most closely. They are among the favorites to win in the competition because the school placed second the year before. The population at PS 115 is predominantly made up of working poor immigrants from the Dominican Republic, many living in poverty. The film introduces some of the risks that these children face on a daily basis, but it also demonstrates the hope that, in some small way, the confidence the children gain from participating in the program will help them make the most of all the opportunities available to them. It also shows a community and a culture that is vibrant and supportive of the children. Their spirit and talent make them easy to root for in the competition.
“Mad Hot Ballroom” is a delightful documentary that captures both the spirit of dance and the joy of accomplishment. It demonstrates the power of a little effort and patience and how a simple idea can generate great benefits.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.