Judge Bill Gibron once entered a local dance competition where he did a stunning, rug-cutting combination of the Twitch, the Lurch, and the Bartman. Thankfully, there were no cameras on the premises.
Anyone can make it if they know how to shake it.
They once were young boys and girls. By the end, they will be little "ladies and gentlemen." Every year, the New York Public School system holds a ballroom dancing competition for fourth and fifth graders, and students from around Manhattan and the five boroughs study merengue, rumba, swing, foxtrot, and tango as part of their preparation. After weeks of working, teams are chosen, and quarterfinals and semifinals narrow down the field of 6,000 participants and 60 schools.
The top three teams in the city are awarded gold ribbons, and then compete for a chance at the championship trophy. For the programs profiled in Marilyn Agrelo's amazing documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, the chance for that coveted prize is an elemental part of why they participate in the activity. But we soon learn that there is more taught here than just steps and movements. Life lessons, both hard and happy, are equally important, as sportsmanship and deportment become integral parts of the overall experience.
Mad Hot Ballroom has one of those "can't miss" premises that make you wonder why someone else hadn't thought of it before. Focusing on inner-city grade schoolers learning the "art" of ballroom dancing is like a combination "coming of age" and Rocky-style rags-to-riches story. Diversity will be celebrated, adversity will be overcome, and the viewer will learn something sharp and insightful about high culture's effect on even the most disadvantaged of youth. For a while, this is exactly what we get.
Director Marilyn Agrelo, in her first foray into documentary moviemaking, delivers the kind of pseudo-pat crowd pleaser that has one rooting for the underdogs, hissing the spoiled stuck-in-the-mud brats who don't want to rehearse, and smiling the biggest, dopiest grin when these unskilled symbols of a fractured and uncertain future rise above and succeed. Still, one can't help sensing some manipulation on the part of the filmmaker. Indeed, had this not been a work of fact, we'd be lamenting its overblown, melodramatic leanings.
While its energy and its exuberance will definitely win you over, this is far from a perfect film. The main issues come from the decidedly mixed message the movie uses as its narrative center. For many in the ballroom dancing program, education and dignity are the premier reasons behind the devotion and dedication of the staff. But right from the very beginning, that most damaging of cultural concepts—the insular ideal of competition—comes creeping into the design.
For some of the teachers and a couple of the principals, the yearly citywide contest is a way of winning. It is a chance for a little egotistical showing off and an opportunity to take down rivals who've defeated your students in the past. Decorum and etiquette are all fine and well, but getting that big trophy to sit in the front hall display case is apparently far more important. This turns the enigmatic kids involved into pawns in the hands of adults who are motivated by the need for victory. Usually in a film like this, it's the wayward parents who play the fool. In Mad Hot Ballroom, it's educated individuals who should really know better that end up coming across as crass and callow.
In addition, Mad Hot Ballroom suffers from a sudden shift in focus. While the upcoming contest is important, it is more or less kept in the background as we watch and hear the kids commiserate and comment on what it's like to learn to dance. Distinct personalities appear, and real-world hopes and fears (a lot of fears) are expressed. What we learn is that a lower-class life is slowly stripping these children of their youth, and ballroom dancing is both saving and soothing them. Had it stayed in this arena, allowing the kids to hold the floor to speak their ever-changing, enchanted minds, Mad Hot Ballroom would have been spectacular.
Instead, it had to go and turn itself into The Bad News Bears or The Mighty Ducks, with an underdog team (most of the kids are from the Dominican Republic) going all the way to the championship round in the big citywide final. Instead of treating the competition as an end to all the merengue and tango means that's come before, it suddenly becomes the whole entire reason for the film. Kids who claimed not to care about the contest are devastated when they lose, while adults who've been hiding their killer instinct under layers of love and understanding turn mean-spirited and self-centered once the pressure is piled on. Where once we were dealing with people, all of a sudden we're saddled with prima donnas, and the wistful spirit of all that came before slowly begins to fade away.
It is this last-minute shift (actually, it begins 45 minutes into a 110-minute movie) that finally undermines Mad Hot Ballroom, turning it from glorious to just good. There is still a tremendous amount of enjoyment to be had, especially when the wee ones start spouting off at the mouth. They have some interesting views on love, marriage, life, career, and—dare it be uttered—sex. What's most fascinating is how non-Hollywood they are. Two little girls, both with big dreams and even larger egos, get taken down a peg when they end up on the outside looking in, while kids without the faintest notion of a career in the arts suddenly see how valuable performing is to their future growth.
There is lots of playground gossip and juvenile joking, but these kids have a considerably clearer view of the world than the teenagers they will grow up to be. Agrelo must have known she had a gold mine here. But she fails to sift through the silt to get to the exact nuggets of truth. She just tosses it all in, letting us do the prospecting. That is why, for a while, Mad Hot Ballroom is so much fun. That is also why, at the end, it becomes perfunctory and formulaic. The sad thing is, it didn't have to be.
One final side note—if you love ballroom dancing, this movie may make you wince a little. The kids are very competent when it comes to the basic moves, but there is very little flair or finesse in the performances. If you are like this critic, and think ballroom dancing is the entertainment equivalent of watching live autopsy footage, don't panic. There is only one outright fey foot-stomping rave-up here…and it's the adult teachers who get busy putting on the Ritz. The rest of the time, it's charming children doing their best to remain professional and proficient.
Paramount Pictures proves it hasn't forgotten its old bare-bones ways, delivering a DVD package that is rich in technical treats, but damn near impoverished when it comes to added content. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image (obviously a digital DAT transferred over to film) is clean and pristine, with none of the bleeding, whiting out, or flaring one expects from a video-oriented production. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 Surround is not very directional, but it offers up expert sound reproduction (especially when the dance music is playing) and lots of easy-to-understand dialogue.
As for the lack of any bonus features besides a few preview trailers, Paramount should be ashamed. Films like this blossom when given context and commentary. They sing when background information is added to the mix. While they may have imagined that the movie was enough for many filmgoers, the casual fan won't be interested without additional value. Sadly, none is offered here.
It really is hard to hate Mad Hot Ballroom. As a documentary, it is above and beyond many similarly-themed exercises. Yet there is that stifling notion of competition that keeps getting in the way of the real story to be told. The movie should be about the kids, not the opposition. To boil this entire experience down to a single piece of plastic and wood is ridiculous. There is so much more to learning the art of dance than winning a trophy. Had this movie remembered that, it would be one of the genre's best. As it stands now, it's underwhelming but well worth a look.
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