Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom was released in 1992. Come Dancing ran at the BBC until 1998 and was reintroduced as Strictly Come Dancing to the audience in 2004. Its US counterpart Dancing with the Stars was launched in 2006, still running. And while this craze with ballroom in a contemporary setting still holds, no one has done it better, in terms of addressing how the cultural roots of ballroom and latin dances influence today’s youth than Mad Hot Ballroom.
Mad Hot Ballroom was based on a feature article by Amy Sewell for the Tribeca Trip about New York City public schools teaching ballroom dancing. In 2003, Sewell teamed up with director Marilyn Agrelo and turned the article into a documentary film which visits three different public elementary schools of NYC and follows them closely as they prepare for the American Ballroom Theatre’s final competition, where nine schools will get to compete, after having made it through quarter- and semifinals. Only one school from each borough can compete. The film chooses to record the effort of the public schools of Tribeca, Bensonhurst and Washington Heights. Among the three schools are the reigning champions while all three schools are really passionate about winning, kids and teachers alike. Mad Hot Ballroom, released in 2005, was the second highest grossing documentary that year (second to March of the Penguins) and is the sixteenth highest grossing documentary in the US of all documentary films produced since 1982. However, outside of the US, not many people know of this deliciously funny and moving film not about ballroom dancing and, most importantly, about how important education of all kinds is in order for today’s kids to grow into responsible, thinking adults.
In Mad Hot Ballroom, dancing becomes a way for kids to communicate, be educated and have fun at the same time. And even though this sounds quite corny, I assure you that it’s portrayed with the care free, true attitude it deserves. The moments where it becomes didactic are very few, all of them occurring when adults are in front of the camera. And the reason that Mad Hot Ballroom comes off as a realistic portrayal of the kids’ side of the story is precisely because, most of the times, the kids are the ones doing the talking. And, as you can imagine, they are funny , in their innocence and honest reactions to what ‘s happening and astounding to watch, as some are indeed very skilled dancers and some are much smarter (book or street, we have both) than their age. Since all the kids are fifth graders, they all discuss similar stuff – answering questions some of which are, I’m inclined to think, posed by the filmmakers. They have crushes, don’t know how to act around the opposite sex since they’re at the age where initial –and very awkward- attraction starts between them. They try to figure out the differences between girls and boys and end up coming up with pretty much the same stuff adults have come up with, they have existential wonderings, they gossip about other students, they play sports and run around. It ‘s actually alarming how interesting it is to watch them while not in dance class. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for one’s own childhood which was, for most, the freer people ever get to be. Editing definitely works in keeping it quick and funny, as takes of boys talking about girls and girls about boys alternate. More than anything else, I think the interest in kids’ everyday thoughts and conversation about these topics is how it’s sparked from their dance classes and the contact between them. Sometimes it’s just funny to hear fifth graders talking about the world as if they’re looking at it through a distorted lens-the same one you were looking when you were their age.
Back to the ballroom. The most appealing aspect of the whole film is that it highlights how dancing, of a very different era no less, can help kids today not only to really get to know one another and get along but, also, equip them in order to have the strength to face harsher realities. As explained in the beginning of the film, this program, Dancing Classrooms, was put in place for public schools in order to relieve kids from stress they might have at home as well as help in the integration of other races and cultures. Indeed, the kids of one of the schools seem to especially come from quite tough neighbourhoods and from different racial and, thus, cultural backgrounds and live in a post 9-11 New York City. There’s talk of hustling and drugs- especially from African American and Latino kids. What the film tries to project is how this exercise in poise, restraint and commitment that comes with ballroom dancing actually helps these kids have higher aspirations than just staying for ever in ‘the hood’, never knowing and getting acquainted with anything other than what they were brought up in. As it happens with any sort of education in the level of culture, most kids do start thinking about future plans and what they can do with that. Since we’re talking about dancing, girls are a bit more accepting of it and some boys do come off as resistant. And that’s what the teachers want to focus on, in terms of education. Stereotypical view of a ‘macho’ masculinity where dancing is considered effeminate turns, for most kids, into another stereotypical view of the ‘gentleman’. Ballroom definitely is a very stereotypical dance when it comes to gender roles but, as the film goes on to portray, kids from such neighbourhoods need some retro role models, as what they see around them is drug dealing, gangs and fights. And this info is coming from the kids themselves, describing their every day lives, how they walk to and from school and what kind of surroundings they are faced with every day. In this way, by the end of the film, the transformation of some of the kids manages to show a bit. And even though they are taught through stereotypes which, in some respects, belong in the past, it seems to be the balance to what some of the kids need.
Kids coming from other cultures and countries are, often, the outcasts in the environment of elementary school as language barriers and different usually alienate kids of that age (and of all ages, but that’s a different topic altogether). It’s very amusing to watch how these kids who are, usually, brushed aside by their peers because of the background can, suddently, become the stars and heroes of their school, simply because they can dance. But they do it well. A kid from the Dominican Republic seems to be quite unpopular among his classmates at first but when they see how well he dances, they start changing their minds. And the fact that it’s his heritage which separates him from the pact, both in a negative and positive way, is irony not lost. African American kids can swing like no other and, in general, it is the minorities who seem to have the edge, as ballroom and Latin very much rely on cultures from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. And this makes, probably, for the most entertaining component of the film as Mad Hot Ballroom is not a film about kids who learn how to dance. This is, partly, about kids who can be, or already are, skilled dancers! When the film reaches its final act and records the final competition, the two aspects of this very unique film come together perfectly. The film gets the chance to showcase how the kids have grown in terms of personality and dancing ability. And it doesn’t become sappy for a second, as the story is told with a sense of humour and the respect that the kids deserve as well as a finale where kids battle it out on a dance floor using their two-steps, hips and flirty expressions in order to be crowned winners in a ballroom competition judged by Pierre Dulaine, popular ballroom dance and instructor who came up with the program for NYC public schools, and Ann Reinking, dancer and Bob Fosse’s muse. So, for the record, Mad Hot Ballroom is, in my eyes, the definition of a feel good movie!