August 29, 2005 -- “Mad Hot Ballroom” is a documentary about New York grade school kids learning to dance and competing in a citywide ballroom dancing competition. It has the usual shots of kids being cute, kids goofing off, kids competing, the joy of victory, the crushing pain of defeat, etc. In addition to the usual pitch for the importance of teaching the arts, it has surprisingly candid comments by students about contemporary society, sexual roles and sexual predators.
The film follows the usual formula of introducing us to the teachers and kids we will follow through the competition. Most of the children are seen only during class or competition, but a few are shown at home with their parents. There is an attempt by the filmmakers to paint a more detailed portrait of some of the children in the competition, but the portraits are nowhere near as intimate as in a similar (and superior) film about student competition, “Spellbound.”
The competition itself is a bit maddening. Like any artistic competition, the judging is mostly subjective. This is as hard for the competitors to accept as it is for the theater audience. After one school gets bounced from the competition, some of the dancers say they thought they danced better than the winners. It reminded me of the infamous Olympic figure skating championships where the best team did not win because the fix was in. I prefer a contest where there is an objective winner, like a running race, not a contest where the winner is determined by subjective criteria. Unfortunately, dance contests fall into the latter category. A dance contest is like a dog show. It isn't so much what you do as how you look doing it. The other thing that is irritating about the competition is that it embraces some outdated dances. The students are more into hip-hop than they are into tango or fox trot music. Shouldn't the music be at least slightly relevant to the student's generation? Shouldn't they be learning dances they might someday actually use?
The film looks like it was originally shot with video cameras and the images were later transferred to film. The images have a kind of flat look to them. The shots are not always framed well. With video cameras you would expect a wealth of material for the film, but good shots seem a bit scarce. It is a bit like watching a home movie. Still, the kids are very cute, and I did get caught up in the drama of the competition, such as it was. I found some of the interviews to be more compelling, like the 11-year-old girl talking about how sexual predators particularly target her age group. I also found the conversation among the competitors who lost to be quite interesting. It ranged from “We should have worked harder” to “we was robbed.” I thought the teachers and filmmakers were trying a little too to score political points on the need for continued funding of their pet programs. The teachers in the film are very dedicated. Now, if they could get these kids to learn mathematics and writing as well as they dance, that would really be something to cheer about. This film rates a C+.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.