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Mad Hot Ballroom’ a lively documentary about dancing

Michelle Fordice | Monday, September 26, 2005

The word “documentary” still reminds many people of stodgy old teachers and long minutes in a dark classroom waiting for the movie on amoebas to be over, but successes such as “Spellbound,” “March of the Penguins” and “Super Size Me” have brought the documentary back into vogue.

“Mad Hot Ballroom” is another success of the documentary genre as it entertains and enlightens with a broad look into the world of three classrooms of students learning how to dance. The audience won’t be able to leave the theatre without having their emotions pulled from one extreme to the other.

Since 1994, the American Ballroom Theatre’s Dancing Classrooms program has allowed over sixty inner city New York City public school’s students to learn to dance without the need to pay for lessons. “Mad Hot Ballroom” follows the kids of PS 112, PS 115 and PS 150 as they learn the meringue, fox trot, swing, rumba and tango. Eventually, they participate in the Rainbow Team Matches, a competition among the schools in which each school presents a team of five couples to dance, one couple for each dance and a fifth alternate couple.

The students go from thinking that the swing came from Africa and complaining that their arms hurt to being competent, and in some cases beautiful, dancers. Some of them strive to win the competition, while others are content to go with the flow and simply learn. By the end, all have learned the pressure of competition, the importance – and drama – of teamwork and the determination needed to make it through tough times.

More than a documentary on learning how to dance, “Mad Hot Ballroom” allows the audience to enter the lives of urban pre-teens and to hear their thoughts. The students are as varied as could be imagined and include students that represent different ethnicities, financial situations and neighborhoods. They come from the more upscale and multicultural Tribeca to the impoverished Washington Heights, which is infused with the culture of the Dominicans who live there.

The students discuss everything from teachers who “don’t even understand [the subject they’re teaching]” to gay marriage. When faced with their oncoming puberty, some of the boys talk about “growing hair in weird places,” while many of the girls remark that they fear getting their shape because of the looks they get from older men, some in their own homes. A group of friends discuss the effects of divorce on the family. Over foosball, three boys ponder that unfathomable thing called a girl.

All of these students come from very different situations. Wilson, an amazing performer, learns English as he learns to dance, while the irrepressible Tara practices for hours in front of a mirror just to make the team and jumpstart her dream of being a Hollywood star. All of the students reveal an understanding of the world that most don’t expect from fifth graders.

Viewers of “Mad Hot Ballroom” are forced to look at the complexities and hardships of the lives of these children, but they are simultaneously reassured by the students’ determination to succeed and not fall into drug dealing and gangs through their own hard work and choices.

The documentary’s inclusion of the outside lives of the students makes the audience sympathize with the losers and celebrate with the winners. One cannot help but laugh as Michael laments being paired with a girl a foot taller then he is, understand another boy’s feeling of confusion after losing or cheer with the wining team as they lift up their trophy.

“Mad Hot Ballroom” is a celebration of life and learning that will leave you uplifted, amazed, and most of all, dancing out the theatre.