The fifth graders in Mad Hot Ballroom are dedicated. They’re also sometimes tetchy, often distressed, frequently joyous, always brilliant to observe. It seems odd at first, to see such young people working so seriously on ballroom dancing. But within minutes, the documentary — newly released by Paramount to an extrasless DVD hat is still terrific, because the movie is so — makes clear that this is exactly the right activity for these hardworking, enchanting kids.
As they practice with their teachers and each other to learn the difficult steps and postures for the five required dances — rumba, tango, swing, merengue, and fox trot — they also reveal much about themselves, as thoughtful, dynamic young people. The boys perform “assertive” and the girls “intensely supple,” their backs arched and heads pivoting on each turn. As part of American Ballroom Theater’s (ABrT) Dancing Classrooms, they are preparing to compete in the Grand Finals at the World Financial Center, at New York City’s Winter Garden (right next to Ground Zero). And they mean to bring their best.
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo and written by Amy Sewell, the documentary tracks three sets of students, from three NYC public schools, for months before the finals (this includes several intermediary competitions). While some of the young interviewees discuss the difficulties in their neighborhoods, including absent parents, drug dealers, and street violence, they handle these subjects with poise and remarkable self-awareness. They emerge from very different backgrounds, but the film suggests that dancing brings them together, and also argues for the essential role of supportive adults in any child’s life.
The selected school teams reflect differences in class, race, and expectations: Tribeca’s P.S. 150 (where some students, like Tara Devon Gallagher, already look forward to bright futures: “As a career, I wanna be a singer who dances and acts, doing her concerts, just combining them all together”), Washington Heights’ P.S. 115 (where Elsamelys Ulerio considers the world around her and pronounces her own vision: “I want a guy who doesn’t sell drugs, who respects me, and has a good education”), and the more middle class Bensonhurst, Brooklyn’s P.S. 112, which provides yet another dimension — including kids of Italian, Asian, and African descent (the changing demographic of the neighborhood), complicating what might have seemed a head-to-head contest between 150 and 115.
With all these Mad Hot Ballroom is one of the most engaging films you’ll see this year, as much for what it doesn’t do as for what it does. It doesn’t condescend to its interviewees (students or teachers) or treat them as adorable objects to solicit viewer responses on cue. Instead, the film offers its subjects as individuals with goals and ideas, confusions and aspirations. It doesn’t pretend that tough lives are miraculously transformed by ballroom dancing; terrifically precocious Emma Biegacki describes the world she lives in, even in Tribeca, when she observes matter-of-factly, that “11-year-olds are targets for kidnappers.” And it doesn’t cover up the difficulties of losing, even when showing the exultation of winning. All these kids, all their experiences, matter. And dancing is but one means — one extremely telegenic means — to help them figure out their lives.
As they dance, the participants are exposed to various cultural traditions, and begin to learn traditional gender roles. Emma, again displaying almost unnerving savvy, says of her own dancing with boys, that while they’re usually “rowdy and kind of rough,” dancing shows their “nice and gentle” side. She continues, “It brought our relationships and friendships a little bit closer. Hopefully it will be helpful when I marry, which will be a very, very long time from now, I hope.” For their parts, the boys are often nervous, occasionally shy and stubborn (one child opts out of dancing because he’s so undone by some off-screen girl’s slight; he has a boy’s reputation to uphold, and can’t just back down in front of his peers). The height-challenged and superbly energetic Michael Vaccaro makes the best of his lot, practicing hard to dance precisely, but ends up dancing with a partner whose waist is about level with his head.
More than anything else, the movie impresses by the respect it affords its subjects. Whether the dancers perform for the camera (which some of them certainly do), explain their interest (Michael says, “It’s like a sport that hasn’t been invented yet!”), confess concerns (philosophically inclined Cyrus Hernstadt says, “Dance is like a tiny grain of sand if you consider the entire country”), or express themselves in complicated dance moves (the swing dancers are moving fast), they all give of themselves, for enthusiastic teachers like Yomaira Reynoso and Victoria Malvagno, and especially for each other.
As in any competition, there’s a spectacular angle: the trophy — taller than any child in competition — is passed from school to school each year, appears at film’s beginning as its current holders, at P.S. 150, dote on it in the sunny room where it’s kept. At the same time, though, the final scenes at the Financial Center contest are not only about winning. They focus instead, however mobile and awkward the filming may sometimes appear, on the remarkable ways the children (and their proud teachers and parents) have come together.
And if the children don’t articulate this for themselves, the film makes sure you won’t miss it: ballroom dancing is a set of social abstractions, of strategies and choices rather than any “natural” order. Denaturalized here in the bodies, behaviors, and joyous expressions of kids, dancing further reveals that gender and class are performances, not as they supply the kids with fixed identities, but as they shape new ways to express and challenge themselves.