Dancing into Dignity: Mad Hot Ballroom, a Review





This 2005 film by Marilyn Agrelo, which follows New York elementary students as they learn how to ballroom dance through a program in public schools, isn’t the typical dance competition movie. Though it ends with champions and runner-ups, it’s not about the competition. This is a documentary-style film about learning to choose excellence, regardless of one’s situation in life. Between takes of the instructors fostering growth by gently reminding their classes of various techniques, the camera pans directly to the students, allowing them to candidly reveal their thoughts.

By offering this unique perspective, the film reminds viewers of what it was like to be eleven. It’s easy to forget that eleven year olds are so aware of what’s happening in the world around them. In the film, they share their thoughts on drug dealers, lamenting that they (the drug dealers) miss so many educational opportunities, and divorced parents, proclaiming that “parents should try to keep it together” for their children.

Despite the film’s primary focus, even the children who can’t dance because it’s against their religion get their moment. They get to be the DJs. One of the DJs, Mohammed, says, “I think it’s good because everyone is nice to me. No one cares if I’m from another country.” The film continues to tell a story of acceptance as it focuses on Wilson, a young boy who doesn’t speak English, yet becomes one of the best dancers in the class. This is a beautiful example of what can be accomplished when everyone’s inherent dignity is recognized.

When the subject turns to the upcoming competition, both student and teacher offer their perspective. Many of the students discuss their nerves and their desire to be chosen to represent their school, though others are just happy that they’ve learned to dance. Selection is an emotional process for both student and teacher. One teacher reveals that she doesn’t want to choose the couples for the competition; she just loves seeing them turning into ladies and gentlemen.

After selection, as the students prepare to compete, their instructors discipline them in a manner that allows them to choose the good, rather than forcing them to. This has an enormous impact on the students, forming them as persons and increasing their self-confidence. During the competition, as some teams advance and others do not, the runner-ups recognize that they tried their best and they mourn their losses in solidarity with one another, while the winners enjoy the thrill of victory.

By the end of the movie, there is a noticeable change in the students. Those who used to be mischievous or disruptive are now well-mannered role models. Learning to dance has taught them to appreciate culture, one another, and themselves. They now have dreams of becoming professional dancers, of going to college and having families.

Learning to dance has taught them to appreciate culture, one another, and themselves.

This film is truly inspiring. In it the children rose to the challenge of learning something new and uncomfortable, and realized how fun meeting such a challenge could be. They chose the good at every practice, every win, and every loss, and realized what they were capable of. It’s a beautiful example of human freedom.

Carissa Tinley is an Intern for WYA North America.

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