Monday, March 13, 2006

Mad Hot Ballroom was terrific. There are so many different reasons to watch it. It's a novel idea, something which hasn't been done before. The director, Marilyn Agrelo, never lets the documentary get too schmaltzy, even if it is about a bunch of 11-year-old children who come from the 'hoods. She never condescends to them or patronise them in any way.

And then of course, there's the dancing.

Ballroom features children from three public schools in New York: Tribeca's PS 150, Washington Heights' PS 115 (populated with children of Dominican immigrants) and Brooklyn's PS 112 (a school remarkably full of Asian kids). At first, the documentary focuses on the dances they're doing (part of the American Ballroom Theatre's Dancing Classrooms programme for schools), and the different teachers and principals of each school. We see the various children struggle to learn how to dance in the initial stages, although the natural flare and grace of the Dominicans shine through early on.

Then, the children are interviewed on what it's like to dance with, well, the opposite sex, with one hilarious clip of a young boy talking about how girls think they're all superior just because they can dance better. And then they start opening up further, talking about how "11-year-old girls are the prime target for kidnappers" and how one girl "want[s] a guy who doesn't sell drugs, who respects [her], and has a good education." All simple things until you realise that they come from underprivileged backgrounds, living in neighbourhoods where drunks and drug-dealers hang out.

As the competition date nears, some of the kids become more nervous and tense; they desperately want to make it to the team and represent their schools in the competition. Of course, as in all competitions, there can only be one winner, and even though the audience knows all of this in advance, it's still a little heartbreaking to see the kids put in so much effort and break down once they realise they're going home, and not to the finals. One very enduring boy, Cyrus, when told by the judge that the school only lost by three points, turns to the camera and says, "I still don't understand what we did wrong." Later on, the kids are seen philosophising about their loss, about how maybe they did everything they were told to do by their own teachers, but the judges had a different idea about how things should be done, about how if everyone had done a little better, they would have gone through and so on.

Then the film begins to focus on just one school, and it's so very clear that they're heads and shoulders above the other two schools in the documentary. There's one kid in particular, Wilson, who doesn't speak English, but is such an amazing dancer that you'd be well-advised to pay close attention any time he's on-screen. He's such a sweetie and boy, can he move those hips. He'll definitely break many hearts when he's older. To see what I mean, go to the official web site and check out "Wilson/Elsamelys competing the rumba."

The other children are great too. Their shy expressions and slightly defiant glints in their eyes melt away once the music starts. It's really quite a sight to behold.

Despite all my gushy words so far, I should make it clear that this documentary doesn't pretend that ballroom dancing saves these kids. Instead, it lets us see the effects on them: they sit up straighter, they're slowly becoming "ladies and gentlemen" as one teacher puts it, breaking into tears as she says this, and you see a certain joy in their faces that you're not sure they've experienced before given the kind of environment they've grown up in.

And more importantly, this isn't some fictional movie. It's real. And it's awesome.

Related: How did Mad Hot Ballroom survive the copyright cartel? It makes my blood boil thinking that this documentary might never have come to be just because of some assinine money-grubbing music makers.

Quote from the article: "If filmmakers have to worry about these things, documentaries will cease to be documentaries! What happens when the girls go shopping and there's music playing in the stores? We were lucky because in our movie the music wasn't identifiable, but otherwise what are we supposed to do: walk up to the store manager and say, 'Excuse me but can you turn off your radio?'"

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