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A popular and unusual New York City phys ed program gives 5th-graders
across the city's public school system the chance to learn the
fundamentals of ballroom dance. The best of the bunch are asked to join
their school team and paired off as partners, as they prepare to compete
in a major citywide competition. Mad Hot Ballroom follows teams
from three different schools set in very different New York
neighborhoods: P.S. 150 in Tribeca, where the kids are largely well-off
and worldly, P.S. 115 in Washington Heights, which has a large Dominican
immigrant population and where 97% of students live below the poverty
level, and P.S. 112 in Bensonhurst, a working/middle class neighborhood
where Asian and Italian communities intertwine. Dedicated teachers prod
skeptical students to learn how to move their feet, hold their bodies,
lead and follow, all in response to the rhythm of the music; awkward
pre-adolescents gradually achieve grace, poise, self-confidence and a
real sense of respect for their partners. It's a rewarding program that
gives the kids so much more than basic dance floor skills. Still, though
every effort is made to keep the competition as friendly and positive as
possible, the quest for the trophy is fierce, as some teams make the cut
to proceed to the next level and others watch their dreams go bye-bye.
There's something about kids and competition that just gets me in the
gut. It's probably a testament to how much the idea of the American
dream is ingrained into our psyches, but watching youngsters work
really, really hard to achieve some goal -- you have to be a pretty
hardened soul not to root for the kidlets, to find yourself not even a
smidge affected by their determination and optimistic faith that hard
work will yield success. Throw in the inherent amusement factor of
watching kids in that weird stage of growth between childhood and young
adulthood learn how to do something as old-fashioned-formal and grown-up
as ballroom dance, and it's no wonder that Mad Hot Ballroom is
just the best kind of feel-good. The kids are funny and weird, and say
the most gut-wrenchingly sad things in the most off-hand way (one
sweet-faced fifth-grader tosses off a dead-earnest comment about how,
when she gets a little older, she just wants a boyfriend who's not a
drug dealer). They're so damned adorable -- without being all
Hollywood-styled faux-cutesy -- that after we finished watching this
flick, my normally stoic boy commented, "Aw, I want a cute
ten-year-old." But for better or worse, Mad Hot Ballroom
chooses not to focus on the individual characters (indeed, I had a hard
time remembering who was who at times, which was a little frustrating)
and strives to capture the overall feel of the different schools and
communities instead. And certainly, that's one of the really fascinating
things about this documentary, how it shows such a diversity of
socio-economic cultures all existing within the confines of the city of
New York. Still, in the end, the thing that really wins you over about Mad
Hot Ballroom is the sight of those kids dancing. The movie doesn't
ignore the problems some of them might soon face, but while they're on
the dance floor, it's so obvious: these kids have found something that
makes them feel good, and challenges them to be better. It's not world
peace and better lives for all mankind, but it's a good start.—reviewed
by Yee-Fan Sun
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