Movie Review: Mad Hot Ballroom

A couple of years ago I saw a trailer for Mad Hot Ballroom, which looked like a cross between Spellbound and Strictly Ballroom. Of course, I wanted to see it because I love documentaries especially when they have a quirky topic and involve children. As Ty Burr writes in the Boston Globe:

Can there be anything easier than to make a documentary about school kids facing off in some sort of eccentric competition? Establish the ground rules, turn the camera on, let the children be themselves: Presto, instant insight into embattled innocence and native wisdom.

Tonight Susan & I watched Mad Hot Ballroom on DVD. The basic premise of this film is that New York City public schools require 5th-grade pupils to take a 10-week ballroom dance class culminating in a city-wide competition among the best dancing schools. The filmmakers focus on the dance classes of three schools in Washington Heights, Tribeca, and Benshonhurst. This allows a comparison of children from across social and economic classes while they all participate in learning the same dances to the same music (albeit with very different instructors). Teachers and principals talk about the benefits of the class and competition in helping the children to gain confidence and develop leadership skills while avoiding falling in with the rough crowd. Over the course of the film you really see the children develop from gawky and awkward to becoming quite graceful dancers. The children take it seriously, discussing and practicing dance outside of school. Even when the students of a couple of the schools are devastated by losses in the quarterfinals they are able to reflect on how much fun they had learning the dances and the character-building effects of competition. The whole movie make a great exhibit for a case in favor of the arts in schools.

The best parts of this movie are the interviews with the children. In candid moments they talk about dance, their friends, and life in general. The boy-girl divide is a big topic at an age when cooties is still a big concern and their teachers are asking them to look into one another’s eyes. Sadly, this also a weakness of the documentary where there seems to be too much dance and not enough talk. With dozens of kids involved at each of the three schools it’s hard to get to know any of them really as individuals. In fact, the cuts from school to school make it hard to keep track of which children attend a particular school. So as the drama builds I found myself rooting for groups instead of individuals (and my favorite school wins it all).

Then again if the movie gets the children to reveal too much they’ll be ragged on for the next decade. I guess the filmmakers do owe it to the children to preserve a little bit of their anonymity.

My overall review is that warts and all this is a pleasant and insightful documentary, well worth watching.

One thing I don’t often think about is copyright clearance for music used in films. In my Google searches I stumbled upon this interesting article “How did Mad Hot Ballroom survive the copyright cartel?” by Carrie McLaren in Stay Free magazine. I’ve heard of this issue coming up for DVD releases of classic tv shows like “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “The Wonder Years” where the original soundtrack of rock and roll hits were replaced with generic Muzak due to copyright issues, so it was interesting to read the behind-the-scenes story.