At some sixty-eight public schools in New York City, fifth-grade students can take a course in ballroom and Latin dancing, taught by instructors from American Ballroom Theater (ABrT). In Mad Hot Ballroom, producers Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell followed students at three schools from the beginning of the ten-week course through the final, citywide competition. The documentary is charming, exciting, often hilarious, and, in the end, deeply inspiring.
For a school system with bloated costs and poor achievement, with political correctness in the classrooms and violence in the halls, dance instruction may seem yet another distraction from teaching core skills and knowledge. But if Mad Hot Ballroom is anything to go by, that judgment would be false. As we see the ten- and eleven-year-olds learning foxtrot, meringue, rumba, swing, and tango, we also see them learning the most important lessons of life, the traits of character they will need as adults even more than they will need geometry or American history.
But let’s start with the charm factor. Agrelo and Sewell follow the almost-adolescent students both in class and
outside, eavesdropping on their conversations on playgrounds and at home. The documentary features three very different schools: P.S. 150, in Manhattan’s upscale Tribeca neighborhood; P.S. 112 in Bensonhurst, a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, traditionally Italian but now half-Asian; and P.S. 115 in Washington Heights, on Manhattan’s far-upper West Side, with its large population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. The diversity brings out different styles in the common dances the students learn—and common themes in the different lives they lead. Along the way, in the framing of every scene, the filmmakers convey their love of New York, as if to say, as Samuel Johnson said of London, that he who tires of this city has tired of life.
The Tribeca children come from families of urbane and successful professionals. They are highly articulate, aware of the world in which their parents move, and precociously, if precariously, self-assured. Know-it-all Emma confidently passes along to her friends various factoids she has heard, such as the discovery that women actually are “the higher civilization.” Cyrus, a dour, diminutive boy with a gold earring, is prematurely versed in the ways of the world and more than willing to challenge the adults around him, as when he confronts a contest judge to complain of a low score. (In interviews, Agrelo says that when she first met with the class to explain how the filming would work, Cyrus asked if she had a distribution deal in place yet.)
Dancing is clearly a source of joy for these kids.
In Bensonhurst, the camera lingers on Michael, an easygoing boy, at once earnest and goofy, as he rambles on about dance, girls, and marriage while playing Foosball with his buddies. Two Chinese girls converse on a park bench, speaking demurely but with ill-concealed excitement about the prospect of romance. A Jewish boy serves as DJ in class because he’s not allowed to dance. “It’s against my religion,” he tells us. “It’s against his, too,” he adds, pointing to Mohammad, a shy Arab who says he likes it here because “people accept you.” Of all the students, the Bensonhurst kids seem most anchored in their world, taking life, people, and the ups and downs of competition as they come.
The Washington Heights children face a harsher reality. Despite what appear to be fairly close-knit families, the vast majority live below the poverty line. Drug-dealing is business as usual on the streets. Like their Tribeca peers, these kids seem wise beyond their years—but not about distribution deals and the like. The girls talk frankly about wanting a husband who won’t cheat on them, who won’t get into drugs, “who wants to make something of himself. And who respects me.” But dancing is clearly a source of joy. For a few troubled students it is a source of self-discipline. And, oh, can they dance! By the end of the course, their performances are simply breath-taking.
Grade-school dance lessons could have been about as interesting as watching grass grow. Mastering steps and style with a modicum of grace is a slow process, even for people whose bodies are not engaged in growth spurts and hormonal make-overs. Like countless movies with the formulaic “road to the big game” storyline, Mad Hot Ballroom
uses fast-paced editing to speed through the otherwise tedious hours of practice. (The editing is a bit too quick for my taste, making it difficult to keep the teachers and students differentiated by school. You may want to take along the guide to characters--see sidebar
.) But the narrative is anything but formulaic. For one thing, there’s real suspense: because this is a documentary, we don’t know in advance how far any of the teams will go in the competition. In addition, though the film focuses more and more on the children as it progresses, the adults are much more than bit players.
The dance instructors are engaging for their distinctive personalities and style; for the wonderfully inventive metaphors they use to convey the subtleties of motion, posture, and style; and for the lessons they teach in decorum. In Washington Heights, Rodney Lopez begins a foxtrot lesson by asking the students to imagine how a fox walks; within minutes he has the class gliding across the floor in the smooth, confident, slow-slow-quick-quick of a predator’s stalk. He tells the boys to tuck in their shirts, explaining with matter-of-fact authority that their loose-hanging street-chic style looks terrible. The command gets quick compliance because Lopez himself is the essence of cool.
One of the benefits ABrT claims for its dance program, which the organization and its donors offer the public schools at 40 percent of actual cost, is to help students “understand the civility, social manners, and dress codes expected in adult life.” In the Tribeca school the suave and aristocratic Alex Tchassov, a ballroom competitor in his native Russia, tells his class, “Ballroom is a dialogue between a lady and a gentleman.” He uses those terms in their literal, elevated meaning, not as mere synonyms for female and male, and so do the other teachers. By the end, at least some of the students seem to grasp that being a lady or gentleman is a desirable status, but one that has to be earned by embracing certain standards of behavior. It is striking, and refreshing, that no one seems to have any politically correct antipathy toward such standards as tools of control by the ruling class, nor any disdain toward the standards as merely conventional, not natural. Though no one in the film says it in so many words, there’s a common recognition that dress and manners are the outward form and instrument of self-respect and self-discipline.
That’s one of the great lessons in life these students learn. The other has to do with competition.
The dance competition among schools, of course, is what provides the drama of Mad Hot Ballroom as well as its moments of pathos. Competition is also a topic of discussion and debate. In one of the more amusing scenes, the ABrT instructors gather with Pierre Dulaine, the organization’s founder and MC for the contest, to discuss logistics for the event. After some discussion of how to soften the blow for the losing teams, Dulaine reminds everyone, somewhat acerbically, of a fact they are struggling to evade: “If you haven’t won, you’ve lost.”
The film shows how values can and should be taught.
Is competition about beating your opponent? Yes and no. Yes, obviously, in the sense that the alternative of winning or losing is what gives point to the activity and provides the challenge. No, in the sense that the ultimate satisfaction lies in doing one’s best, not in being better than someone else; competition is merely a device for experiencing one’s own abilities and virtues at their highest. But navigating emotionally between these poles of competition is not easy, even for adults, and the difficulties are on full display in the film.
Allison Sheniak and Yomaira Reynoso are the teachers at Tribeca and Washington Heights, respectively, who collaborate with ABrT’s instructors in the dance program. Both women are attractive, articulate, dedicated, and intensely committed to their students. But those similarities highlight a key difference in how they deal with competition.
The Tribeca school reflects the culture of Manhattan’s professional elite: successful, well-connected, intensely competitive—and sufficiently guilty about all of the above to paper those traits over with liberal pieties. The school’s principal says she didn’t like the competitive aspect of the dance program but approved it to help the school get back on its feet after September 11. (P.S. 150 is less than half a mile from ground zero as the rubble flies.) Sheniak gives voice to the same ambivalence. She doesn’t like having to pick students for the school’s team, worrying about the effects on those not chosen. When the team loses and the children are crushed, she assures them that “it’s not about winning.” That’s an obvious half-truth, and it’s obviously not the half that the kids are experiencing at that moment. When they talk it over later, the students are at first full of excuses: We did everything the instructors told us to; the other team wasn’t really better; the judges’ verdict is just a matter of opinion. It is one of the students, not Sheniak, who finally serves as the voice of reality and responsibility, admitting that “we could have done better.”
Yomaira Reynoso, the teacher in Washington Heights, has no ambivalence about winning. With energy like a force of nature and earthy good humor (even funnier, I suspect, for those who don’t need subtitles to understand the Spanish she sometimes speaks with her mostly Dominican class), she too is dedicated and totally committed to her students. There’s no question she will love them no matter how they fare in the competition. In a poignant monologue, she wishes she could reach inside her students’ minds and give them the strength to resist the lures of the street, to make something of themselves as individuals. But she knows that such aspirations have to be chosen, and that some will choose badly. She knows that talent, ambition, and achievement are not equally distributed, that it’s right and fair for the best students to make the team and for the best team to win the gold. She knows that competing will call out her students’ best only if they give everything they have to the goal of winning. She does not try to shelter the children from those facts of life. She dismisses one boy from the team without hesitation when he misbehaves in practice. She pushes all of them, in colorfully expressed impatience, to keep on working even when they are tired. She may not be able to make all her students escape the narrow limits of their environment, but she models the way out through her love of achievement and unblinking acceptance of facts.
To my mind, she is the real hero of this film, first among her peers in giving this film its moral depth. If you took all the purveyors of programs for character-building, “ethics for kids,” and “values clarification,” and laid them end to end, which might be a good idea in any case, you would not learn as much about how values are actually taught as you do by watching Reynoso prepare her students for ballroom competition. That alone is reason enough to go see Mad Hot Ballroom, even for those—if indeed such a condition is possible—who are unaccountably immune to the charms of children, dancing, and New York City.