Mad Hot Ballroom is a wonderful full-length feature documentary about several teams of 11- year olds from New York City public schools who learn ballroom dancing and then compete in a city-wide contest.
Many reviewers and film critics say it reminds them of Spellbound, the documentary that follows five or six young people go from local spelling bees to nationals. I enjoyed Spellbound very much, but it had nowhere the magic of Mad Hot Ballroom, probably because ballroom dancing is a team endeavor rather than an individual quest, and though both require talent, spelling is a skill and dancing is an art.
Mad Hot Ballroom is about community and growing up in New York City’s five diverse boroughs (although I didn’t see any from Staten Island!), about looking another kid in the eye and doing something that can make a person so vulnerable – dancing in public. The film calls our attention to how the kids develop communication skills, and lay the foundation for positive relationships in the future.
We see so many sports movies as “metaphors” for life; it is a joy to see a film that introduces the movie-going public to a contemporary educational program that celebrates the arts and encourages kids to use dance for a metaphor for life – and they get it.
The film cuts back and forth between comments of teachers and conversations between the kids (still strictly in boy and girl groups characteristic of early adolescence) about what dancing means for them. The children come from a variety of home situations, some difficult, and some arenew to the U.S. I liked the way the filmmakers folded in views of the neighborhoods, the homes, churches, and street markets. Having lived in New York City for 13 years, it felt like home.
In 2004 a program was introduced into NY City schools – a ten week program to teach kids ballroom dancing. The teachers are provided by American Ballroom Theater. At the time the film was released this year, 60 schools are enrolled in the program and it is a requirement for 6,000 students. And what a gift it is. Teachers and parents see how their children mature and take responsibility; we hear the kids talk about relationships with the opposite sex, and their dreams for the future; we only see one boy drop out of the program. The kids are articulate and some are quite sophisticated – they seem to know life a little too well for their age.
When the film begins the course has just begun at five schools, and follows through some of the learning stages. It must be in March because there are shamrocks on the walls of the practice rooms and halls. It focuses then on the quarter, semi-finals and finals, including the dance for the Challenge trophy. It’s easy to guess which school will win because the camera seems to love those dancers (each school wears a different color sash so that the contest is a rainbow competition that celebrates the kids’ ethnic diversity as well as the cultural diversity of the dances.)
I admit that I was moved several times during the film, and as the kids danced the tango (Argentina), merengue (Dominican Republic), foxtrot (?), rumba (Cuba), and swing (USA), my feet were moving, too.
The film is tastefully and artistically directed, written, and filmed by women: Marilyn Agrelo, Amy Sewell, and Claudia Raschke, in that order.
If I could vote for an Academy Award winning documentary today, this would have it, hands down. I just loved it. Go see it and take your friends. If you liked Strictly Ballroom, Shall We Dance (Japanese or U.S. versions), or even the less popular Dance with Me, you’re sure to be entertained and inspired by Mad Hot Ballroom.