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Coming of age: Mad Hot Ballroom

education, movie Mad hot Ballroom

Coming of Age: Learning about Life: Mad Hot Ballroom Dancers.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to watch director Marilyn Argrelo’s award winning documentary film, Mad Hot Ballroom. The film is about a 10-week ballroom dance program for students of 5th grade of New York public schools. It deals with the coming of age kids who, in the process of learning various dance forms-meringues, rumba, tango, foxtrot and swing, warm up for life. The Ballroom dance grooms them to be refined gents and ladies, helps them explore their latent talent. “I think it is much more than a part of physical education. It’s not at all just that. It is etiquette. It is knowledge of other cultures, It is life”, believes Louise Verdemare, Principal of PS 112.
From the beginning the film, establishes the basic idea that anyone can achieve anything if he/she has the zest and is ready to work towards it. It opens on Public School-115 of Washington Heights, Manhattan, when during her interview, the school Principal informs that 97% of the school’s Hispanic population lives below the poverty line. However, she also asserts, that these students are not apologetic about their conditions. They are dreamers and they like to chase their passions, live their life. The ballroom dance teaching helps these students foster the very spirit. It helps them unfold their own personalities and make life a more fulfilling.

Yomaria Reynose, the dance teacher of Washington Heights, PS 115 acclaims, “You don’t know what’s hidden inside each child, until you open it up”. She recalls her young days when the opportunities weren’t as many. Today, students are getting a chance to unleash and enhance their talents. “With time, there are avenues opening up for them (kids) to go into something that has to do with arts”. This holds true for each one of us. Future generations are always better equipped, more open and liberal than those who precede them. In our schooldays, kids never had technology au fait; they were never so informed about life. I remember, when in school we were first introduced to computers. There were about thirty students in a class, sharing five computers. Today, times have changed. Students have both, avenues and opportunities.

As the movie progresses, it brings to light, the myriad facets of the American life. The kids share their secrets, talk about various issues that concern them, discuss their perceptions about things. The dance competition event serves the perfect milieu for these young men and women to explore themselves, their dreams, their sensuality; their association with the opposite sex and to learn to coexist with harmony in a multi-cultural environment. I think it is quite relevant to any modern day society.

Initially in the movie, we see kids showing some reservation in getting together. They remain with their respective guys’ and girls’ groups and give out strange expressions, when asked to pair up or hold hands. These kids are basically unwilling participants. With time and the consistent efforts of their dedicated teachers, the kids’ inhibitions fade away, their attitudes towards their partner softens. They start accepting each other, enjoy dancing with harmony. In my teens, I had similar experiences. I would generally be a shy person and keep away from most guys. But, I would also get tickled on the very mention/sight of one of the guys in our music class. After a few interactions however, during lessons, we opened up and became friends. Here, in the movie, the dance sessions make interaction with the opposite sex, with kids of different cultures, easier for these students on the threshold of adolescence. “This”, as Wilson a Manhattan’s school kid later remarks, “hopefully will come in use when I grow up and am married”.

The movie also underlines several problems that engulf our modern day societies-of poverty, drugs and child abuse, relationships of the grown ups, their differences, negligence towards kids. While praising the efforts made by public schools in organizing events like this, Manhattan teacher sadly remarks, “You bring out all these things to these children. You bring out arts, all of these programs. And then few years down the line, you see these kids are on the streets. That’s not what we want for these kids.” She says intensely. I wish I can get inside every child and say, you are worth it. You are an individual. But it doesn’t work like this with everyone. And I can only do what I can”. At another occasion, we see girls talking about separation and divorce, adultery at a tender age of 11. They point out that disassociation or neglect may be a reason for kids to find escapade in drugs, associate with gangs etc.

Another thing I moved by in the movie was the sentiment expressed by a Brooklyn school boy. This is to do with his religious beliefs. Taha, the 10 year old says, “I can’t dance at all because it’s against my religion”. With no offenses meant, it is quite sad to learn that a form of art is rather looked down upon. Going along the documentary, the director has playfully underscored issues that concern our social structure.

While watching Mad Hot Ballroom, I felt ebb and flow between happiness and sorrow. On one hand I was disturbed by the urbane menace, on the other touched by the innocence of students. Mad Hot Ballroom has beautifully documented the art of teaching. They are focused and determined to change their students’ lives for better. And it is for them, even the most unwilling and hopeless students undergo a behavioral transformation. A teacher of Washington Heights School remarks about her student, “Michelle was incorrigible, very mischievous, mot focused on school. But now, she has turned herself around to have real goals. She now has a much high opinion of herself. If that is not a dramatic improvement, I don’t know what else is”. She further adds. The teachers are convinced that ballroom dancing gives their students many invaluable lessons about life. Subsequently, Mad Hot Ballroom demonstrates that creative expression is a must for any individual to groom. Once a person has found something that he/she loves doing, he must do it whole heartedly. Success will surely follow.

Works cited:
1. Mad Hot Ballroom, Documentary. Produced & Directed by Marilyn Argrelo. Year of Release: 2005. Language: English/Spanish.
2. Official website Mad Hot Ballroom-
Published: 2008-01-14
Author: beli

About the author or the publisher
Hi! am beli, a writer by profession having around six years’ experience in print & electronic media as copywriter/journalist/scriptwriter.
I am based in Mumbai, India.
I enjoy writing on art and culture, literature, history, theatre, etc.
At present, am making time writing ad commercials for advertising agencies in mumbai.
besides reading and writing, i like to cook, paint and listen to music.

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