The unfortunately titled Mad Hot Ballroom is neither mad nor hot, but it is about kids and ballroom dancing and it is a delight. Nobody walks out of this film at the end without a great big smile.
Mad Hot Ballroom documents a ballroom dance competition run in the New York City public schools, where some schools have elective classes for fifth-grade kids who want to learn to dance. Adult ballroom dancing competitions, familiar to many from exposure on public television, are rather sophisticated affairs where custom and rules have distilled a highly stylized form of popular dances. Eleven-year-old kids won’t, in a ten week course, reach that level of skill, but these pre-teens, bursting into adolescence, not yet adults, are an inspiration in their determination to learn. The process itself teaches them important life lessons–big ones like goal-setting, commitment, self-respect and dedication, but also some important lesser skills like manners and deportment.
The film follows the teams from three schools from the first classes through the various levels of competition to the grand finals. The scenes of the classes are interspersed with scenes of the kids talking among themselves, giving a bit of a look at both the personalities and what these kids are thinking. Being New Yorkers, of course, they are nothing if not vocal, but some, especially those for whom English is not their first language, are more reticent than others.
The dedication of the teachers is also apparent and heartening. One principal’s concerns over encouraging competitiveness is well-taken, but she understands that it provides the framework and motivation for a valuable learning experience for her students. Contrast that with another principal whose covetousness of the grand trophy seems to be more about her own ego-trip than the benefits for her students.
There is passing reference to the events of 9/11 and the finals competition takes place in the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, right next to Ground Zero. Against that background, these kids seem an affirmation of survival, growth, and change–new life continuing after the tragedies of the past. Shots of neighborhood scenes interspersed throughout provide a sense of place.
It would be easy to carp over the shortcomings of the film. The three teams represented are not always sufficiently differentiated, though the Washington Heights team, mostly kids of Dominican immigrants, does emerge due to its warm and devoted teacher and the charm of the students. Often, the kids’ talking scenes are less than intelligible, due to ambient noise on the soundtrack, accents and the not always articulate capabilities of eleven-year-olds. Little differentiation is felt as well at the various steps of the competition, real suspense arriving only at the finals. As a result the narrative arc of the film is flatter than it might have been.
In the final analysis, though, none of that can sink the charm and ebullience of the kids and it’s these kids, so diverse racially, culturally, and economically, that make the film work. The combination of naivete and city street smarts, of childlike innocence and incipient adulthood, is caught here in a natural, unforced way. Jatnna dreams of becoming a professional dancer-singer-actor; her mother says she wanted her to be a doctor, but if acting is what her daughter wants, she will support her in that. Kelvin’s life has been turned around, now pointed in the right direction through the confidence he has gained in his participation in the dancing.
But the kid who grabs the heart above all is Wilson, a Dominican boy struggling to learn English. What he doesn’t say in words is conveyed through smiling eyes, a totally engaging grin, and hips that swivel to a Latin beat with all the life and joy of a born dancer. In an ensemble piece, he emerges, hands down, as a star.