Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Mad Hot Ballroom


For quite some time now, schools in the five boroughs of New York City have been running a program from the American Ballroom Theater called Dancing Classrooms. About 6,000 kids enter the program, all of them 5th graders, 10 or 11 years old.

Try to remember what you were like in the 5th grade. You’d passed through that brief period when it didn’t much matter which sex you were; boys and girls played together, sometimes, though the boys were rougher. Then the segregation began, some regimented, and some self-enforced. All through elementary school girls stuck with girls and boys stuck with boys. If you were a girl you might have had a crush on a particular boy. If you were a boy, you mostly thought of girls as a nuisance. (The general rule, okay? There’s always exceptions.) Each gender was pretty much a mystery to the other. Boys were weird. Girls were hard to understand.

Now get a couple dozen of these kids together in a gymnasium and tell them to take each other’s hands, put your hands on your partner’s waist or shoulder, and … look deeply into your partner’s eyes! Most of these children have not touched a member of the opposite sex, in any way other than an accidental or intentional bump in the hallway, since kindergarten. Some of them are still on the innocent side of puberty, some are in the confusing middle of it, and a few have already been whomped upside the head with it like they was hit by a crazy stick. Very, very scary!

At the beginning, you never saw so many left feet, as each child has two of them. They are total stiffs, and they don’t much like this class. But the teachers manage to ignite a fire, and each time we see the kids they are more into it, until by the time of the Big Contest they’ve reached the point where it’s pretty much all that matters to them. For now.

But there are preliminaries, semi-finals, lots of hoops to dance through before they can go to the Rainbow Team finals (where one of the judges is Ann Reinking). And of course, there can only be one winner, which means there are lot of losers, as in all of life.

So what are you going to do? You can’t have a swim race without a winner. What’s the point? It’s a race, somebody wins. You can’t play poker without money; money is the entire reason for poker’s existence, no matter what my ex-wife tried to sell us on. (“Let’s just play for fun!” “Poker, for fun?”) You can dance for fun, most of the dancing in the world is for fun … but the plain fact is, people will work harder if they are in competition with each other, they will get better quicker, they will find an intensity few can achieve for “fun.” I think the contest at the end of this class is a good thing … but there is a price to pay. Most of these kids have never been in a hard-core competitive environment. They’ve never really lost. They don’t know the heartbreak, the sense of failure and shame. They’ve worked hard. It’s tough to watch the losers, because their grief is right out there in front. There is no stiff upper lip in the fifth grade. These children are crying, and most of all, confused. They thought they’d win. In all of our mental movies, we are Rocky, we are the underdog who wins the Big Game in the last five minutes. It’s a hard lesson to learn, at age 10, that there are always far more losers than winners, and that, in your life, in all probability, you are going to lose many more times than you are going to win. But it’s a lesson we all have to learn (except for Michael Phelps and his ilk).

The first-time director, Marilyn Agrelo, focuses on three schools:

PS 150 from the affluent Tribeca area

PS 112 from the primarily Italian and Asian area of Bensonhurst

PS 115 from Washington Heights, a Dominican neighborhood where over 97% of the residents live below the poverty line.

(And by the way, it’s always seemed odd to me that New York City gives its schools numbers rather than names. I just can’t imagine how their cheerleaders could go out there and holler “Go PS 134!” And what are their school mascots like? Letters? The PS 56 Zees? It’s not as if NYC doesn’t have enough famous native people to give each school a name. There’s Fiorello La Guardia, Bella Abzug, John Lindsay, Peter Stuyvesant, Son of Sam, Typhoid Mary, Boss Tweed, John Gotti …)

I don’t know how many schools she assigned camera crews to in order to be fairly sure of having a lot of footage of the eventual winner (and she got it, the winner is one of those three), but I assume there were others. There is a little footage here and there of the previous year’s winner, from Forest Hills in Queens, which I gather is a pretty upscale neighborhood. I didn’t like their teacher.

But I loved this film. It’s been compared to Spellbound, but I liked this one better. The tension at the end was unbearable … as it was in Spellbound, but in a creepy way. The spelling bee kids were under terrible pressure, mostly from their parents, including one scumbucket who had hired 1000 people back in India to pray for his son’s victory. (The boy lost, and I’d hate to have witnessed the scene back in their hotel room.) Here, in this movie, the parents are simply supportive—those who are there; we don’t learn too much about some of the probably dysfunctional families. Some reviewers criticized the director for showing so little of the home life of these kids, but I didn’t miss it. It’s enough to know that most of the parents at PS 115 didn’t speak English … and many of their kids were still picking it up, too. I’m glad this movie concentrated on the kids dancing, with scenes here and there of their naïve and often funny but sometimes wise observations on life. Oh, they have so much to learn, and some of it will be so hard … and yet many of them look tough enough to deal with it. Others … well, it’s going to be rough for them.
It’s also about teachers. You hear stories of incompetence in the classroom, and I’m sure there’s a lot of it, but it really makes my day to see people as dedicated as these dance instructors are. They live and die by their kids, but not in a bad way. We see them encouraging and pressuring the beginners—not taking any bullshit from them—and consoling the losers, and celebrating with the winners. There’s much to be learned, win or lose. One teacher breaks down on camera while talking about what little ladies and gentlemen her students are becoming. She can’t go on.

And, believe me, though Marge and Gower Champion would never have anything to fear from any of these kids … they are good! The improvement in 10 weeks is astonishing, as we see them tackle the tango, salsa, swing, rumba, and foxtrot.

Every once in a while, life really {{is ]]beautiful, if only for a moment …