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Friday, February 10, 2006

Somebody wants us to win: Musings on Mad Hot Ballroom

An elementary school gymnasium. A group of children stand, rapt at attention, listening to their dance instructor. "Ballroom dancing," he says, "is a conversation between a lady and a gentleman."

An unremarkable statement, perhaps, even if it is being given to a group of 11 year olds. But then consider who these 11 year olds are: underprivileged children from depressed New York neighbourhoods, places where poverty, divorce, physical and sexual abuse, gang violence and drug dealing aren't social phenomena, but daily life. In this context, such a statement is anything but ordinary.

And Mad Hot Ballroom is anything but an ordinary documentary. It is a hope-stirring testament to the transformative power of dance in the lives of children, and a towering tribute to the passionate teachers who day in, day out perform miracles trying to make a difference in these children's lives.

Refusing to take a condescending line, Mad Hot Ballroom gets down to the child's eye view, showing these kids, of every ethnic and racial stripe, in candid interaction with each other. The almost offhand way in which they discuss the social problems they are a part of daily--drugs, violence, abuse--is unsettling.

If the film has one troubling aspect it is the whole competitive nature of the dancing. This admittedly gives narrative impetus, though the triumphalist feel to the end is cliche (so typically American--there must be a winner). But all of that is forgotten when you recall what one girl halfway through the film says about the competition, with real wonder and pleasure in her voice: "Somebody wants us to win." And these young ladies and gentlemen, to employ another cliche, are winners all.

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