Mad Hot Ballroom Reviews
I did a lot of competitions in grade school. Mostly high school, though some even younger than that. And, yeah, it's really hard at times. Losing can break your heart, especially if you think you're as good as people who beat you, and you almost always do. (Not when I did Academic Decathlon, which is almost all objectively scored tests, but Odyssey of the Mind? Oh, yeah.) I have to say, if I had been on a team that lost to one of the teams that made the finals in this documentary, I would have been furious; they just weren't very good. Oh, they were better than I am, but I don't know how to do any of these dances, and these kids have been practicing for months. There's something disheartening about watching these kids who are supposed to be among the best in the city move so stiffly and think of all the kids who cried themselves to sleep over losing to that team.
Strange as it seems, New York City now has a ballroom dancing competition for eleven-year-olds. Has for some time, it seems. This documentary takes a closer look at it, starting with the early part, when all the children of the right age are learning how to dance. (In one of the schools we see, there are two boys for whom it's against their religion to dance, so the boys are made DJs. One of them still manages to pick up enough to give his classmates tips.) From there, they are selected to be on their school's team. Twelve children are chosen--one couple will be alternates, and have to know every dance, but each of the other five pairs is allowed to specialize. The dances are merengue, foxtrot, tango, rumba, and swing. We follow three schools from three very different New York neighbourhoods, seeing the children's hope and disappointment. Through it all, the kids are still ordinary kids who just happen to be very good at dancing. In some cases, it seems to be the first time they've ever been told they were good at anything.
I can't help feeling that the kids selected to do the foxtrot were lucky, far luckier than the kids doing swing. I mean, winning a dance competition isn't easy no matter what dance you're doing, but it strikes me that the foxtrot is just an easier dance. It's smooth and gliding and doesn't have a lot of complicated footwork. Both the swing and tango kids have a lot more to do, and what's impressive is most of the pairs in the finals, who make it look effortless. Most of them, at least in the swing competition, even look like they're having a good time. (You're not supposed to look like you're having a good time when you tango!) They must be incredibly nervous, but even after they lose, kids keep repeating how much fun they were having, a thing I'm not sure I ever said after most of my academic competitions, true though it was in most cases. Then again, having fun while dancing is easier to explain than having fun while taking tests.
Mostly, the documentary lets the kids, and to a lesser extent their teachers, speak for themselves. Most of our focus is on PS 115, a poor school in Washington Heights. Many of the students are immigrants, primarily Dominican; almost all of them are below the poverty line. Statistically, the kids don't have much chance of graduating from high school, much less college. Most of them can be expected to lead the same life their parents lead, though most of them also appear to be too young to realize that. They've started out thinking that the dancing is a bit silly, I think, but it gives them something to do. Some of the kids talk about the problems dealing with drugs in their neighbourhood, and those who do seem relieved at the thought that the dancing keeps them off the streets, if nothing else. They have an accomplishment. They are good at something. They've also learned poise and something about interacting with the opposite sex, which is definitely a positive.
I doubt ballroom dancing lessons are suddenly going to sweep the nation as a way to teach kids poise, dignity, and physical fitness. For one thing, you'd have to get instructors who knew how to merengue themselves. While swing has become fashionable, ballroom dancing as a whole has not. The closest I've ever come myself is watching [i]Strictly Ballroom[/i] so often I just about memorized it. (These kids don't appear to know any new steps, either, but give them a break; they haven't been dancing long.) That's okay. I don't think ballroom dancing is a universal solution anyway. I think it works not because the kids were given anything in particular but because they were given [i]anything[/i]. One of the kids speaks disdainfully of his school's basketball team, but that's a focus, too, provided the team isn't allowed to let schoolwork slip in favour of sports. School doesn't have to be boring, and while I was furious at the teacher who said the competition wasn't about winning, there is something to be said for just being given the chance.
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That aside, it's a beautiful report on the dance program, with statements from the kids and teachers about how it affects their lives, how their interactions with other kids have changed. However, I still believe an 11 y.o. is too young to start with ballroom. There's too many implicit gestures and looks and moves that just doesn't fit children's bodies. What's the ideal age? Don't know. Maybe we should just monitor it really well and make the best we can, for the children's sakes.